IN THE CELLAR LIBRARY, my psychologist dusts off dusty volumes and reads her favorite lines aloud to me. The area is dimly but warmly lit, the air as cool as a saint’s tomb. She wears a long skirt and a white blouse with neat buttons and her movements are wise and deliberate and this is why I cannot restrain myself from at last kissing her. “Oh my,” she says as if stunned and drops the book. “My, what have you done?” Then comes the surrender and relinquishing to the energetic biological flow, and the two warm bodies find themselves joined on the cellar library floor with old prewar volumes piled up all around, stacks and stacks of them. I know she is far too old for me, but she is also so wise and I just cannot help it. There is hair and garments everywhere, and it’s quite a satisfying experience the love making, mõnus, as the Estonians say, nice, sweet. Then it’s over and we have to leave for the East Indies. Our hotel is in a shopping center on some upper floor, the lower floor is devoted to restaurants and electronics stores, and you can get a good discount on some new devices if you want some. I go out to buy a few items, but there’s no grocery store in sight and I am wandering and wandering through the corridors of the shopping center, and then duck into some thatched bungalows next door where hundreds of East Indians live in cramped rooms and the air is thick with humidity and Covid-19. Doors lead to hallways that lead past other crowded bungalow rooms and on to other doors. At last I emerge into the sunshine and palm trees, into the distant roar of the surf, the spicy smell of the East Indies, and make my way back to the hotel, but there has been some kind of great flood and the first floor is brimming with clear salty ocean water, and giant starfish have attached themselves to window glass, baby sharks cut by, as do dolphins which surface and dive, surface and dive. Half soaked, I return to the hotel room weary, but all is well. The psychologist is there by the table with a book, reading in peace. She yawns a bit and turns the pages by candle light. She didn’t even know I went away.
HEIDI AND KLAUS were children of the Brezhnev era. They came one after another to a young couple at the peak of the great stagnation. Beautiful northern children with light hair, chubby faces, and rosy cheeks. Heidi, the older child, was a free spirit who liked to play with her dolls and pick berries in the forest. Klaus was passionate, industrious, and at times argumentative with the other little boys. He won all the arm wrestling matches at the local community center.
This all happened in the deep Soviet time, as the Estonians call the end of Brezhnev’s rule, as if the whole of the country was frozen beneath pancaked layers of blue Antarctic ice. There were cold winters and hot summers that lingered, and the amenities of their country house still looked new. In winter, the foyer was engulfed in tiny mittens and boots, which Heidi and Klaus’s young mother Agnes set out to dry before the hearth. In the mornings, she pulled them to preschool on a sled. In autumn, Agnes would take her children mushrooming. That’s how it was. Then one day their mother disappeared.
The reason she left is still a guarded family secret, but it was rooted in some kind of Soviet bureaucratic inconvenience that got too quickly out of hand. It wasn’t until Heidi’s grandfather Sass was admitted to a hospital in Tallinn for a routine procedure three decades later that he discovered that one of the nurses was his runaway daughter-in-law Agnes. They did not discuss the situation, though the information was relayed to her adult children. From the hospital, Heidi and Klaus managed to get their mother’s number and one evening gathered together to call. She didn’t pick up though and they didn’t try again.
I know this story because Heidi shared it with me one morning over coffee at the cafe. Life post-quarantine has continued, and the warm late spring weather has renewed an almost forgotten vitality in the local people. One of our friends at the cafe tables is a woman who ran away from Australia. She will not comment on the nature of her work there, only to say that it was very dangerous and she is lucky she escaped with her life. I imagine it involved pearl diving. “You can imagine anything you want,” says the woman sipping her latte, but she will comment no further. Heidi wears sunglasses and reads the newspaper and drinks her lattes. Sometimes she gives me updates on Klaus, who has built a huge estate in the countryside and is getting a divorce. We share other thoughts. I tell her how I still dream of one Estonian woman from the north coast who ran away to Polynesia. A voluptuous, mischievous, hurricane of a woman, the kind I attract and that always attracts me. In my dreams she is there, swimming in azure waters, covered in tropical flowers, and then she makes love to her boyfriend beneath a waterfall. Then she tells me not to worry about her anymore. “I am in good hands now,” she says. “Don’t worry.” As if that is supposed to make it any better.
“But what is it about her that you miss the most?” asks Heidi.
This is a difficult question to answer. It takes me some time, and I mull over the question and move the froth of my drink around in the sun. “Something about her just felt right. You know that feeling you get when you wake up early and you can almost feel another person there with you? That’s how I feel about her. It’s as if she’s there, but when I awake, she’s already gone.”
“I understand completely,” says Heidi.
“Is that how you feel about your mother?” I ask.
“No, not at all. But I had a dream about that actor Matthew McConaughey recently and it was the same experience. I woke up and he was there beside me, holding me so tight in bed. Why him? I don’t know! I guess it was something a teenager would dream. But if you see some Estonian who looks like Matthew McConaughey, tell me. I will be there in five seconds flat.”
“It really can haunt you, can’t it?”
“Of course,” Heidi says. “I felt his embrace for days after that. It lingered and lingered. But if I were you, I wouldn’t worry about your tropical girl. That dream is revealing something.”
“It reveals that you are still capable of love.”
ON THE FRONTIER, a woman I know has gone face first into the survival enterprise. They are planting trees along the property line to obscure the view of the farm by travelers and passersby, the fields have been turned over for crops, and a symphony of domesticated birds plays on from morning until night and again restarts at first light. Brahma, the fattest of the hens, escorts dozens of tiny black chicks around the yard. Named for the Hindu creator god, she has slow, deliberate movements, thick, voluptuous, golden-feathered thighs, and the youth gather around her wiry legs underneath, reassured by her confident mama strut. In the distance, the roosters are crowing, not only to announce the dawn, but to announce the coming of the new age. Soft yellow flowers sparkle in the sun among fat green blades of grass, and the trees are coming into full bloom. It’s a barn yard candy land. This is in the Deep South of the Estonian countryside. The Russian border is a jagged line crossing corners here and there, but on the other side of that border, there is just more forest and more countryside, more chickens and women in handkerchiefs. Few people here have the disease, but there is this idea that when, not if, but when everything crumbles, this will be the safest place. That’s why they need to plant the trees, to keep the hungry travelers away and out of their foodstuffs. This is not an isolated case. All across the countryside here, people are preparing for the apocalypse. They always have been, but now it seems palpable and they can taste it. And now they know that all of that work will pay off and mean something. That’s what they’ve been telling me. There is a brisk trade in chicks, and people circulate the latest explain-it-all theory. Some people haven’t been to the shop in months, and a van makes deliveries of milk and cheese to the frontier survivalists. They don’t have time for shops because there is so much more farm work to be done, and they still fear the disease. Their only company are vetted visitors who have been in quarantine, and the chirping birds who serenade both day and night. “Isn’t Brahma a good hen?” the woman calls out to her young daughter. The girl stops with her watering can and eyes the bird. “Yes, emme,” she agrees. “Brahma is such a good hen. Just look at her with all of those chicks!”
BARCELONA. Just the sound and shape of the word makes my mouth water these days. Ever since I did an interview with some scientists some weeks ago, smart men who have been requisitioned by the Catalan Health Department to do disease testing, the city’s name has been stuck on me. I’m dreaming about it. I am dreaming about when I get out of Estonia. I am dreaming about when the floodgates are opened, when we are permitted to travel. When I do, the Catalan capital will be destination one. I close my eyes and I am there on La Rambla, my table full of savory seafood paella and caramel creamy orange desserts and a big glass of sweet red wine in my hands, with the buttons of my shirt open, a sultry breeze blowing in. In the mornings from a cramped apartment in Barceloneta overlooking the beach I finesse an old typewriter and there are journals strewn about full of charts and ideas. I have no time to clean, so it looks as if KAPO has ransacked my room looking for the antidote to life. I’m working on a new kind of fiction here in Barceloneta, a blend of surrealism, modernism, the new sincerity. No more time for little games. I’m tired of the dying old world. I want something new.
You know I’m not alone. We were all frustrated with it. We’ve been frustrated with it for ages. The panic, the disease has only laid bare our frustrations. It is a giant glimmering mirror reflecting back to us what we had suspected all along. We knew everything was broken, yet we were content to step over it, like a fissure in the street. We talk about waiting to go back to what was before, but do we really want to go back? Not in our hearts. Let time then run its course. Let’s see where this goes. Maybe on the other side of this, there is something far more fulfilling. Maybe on the other side of this there is a small table waiting with wine, women, and desserts.
Of course it’s all just a mad springtime quarantine dream. For weeks I have actually been pacing back and forth here in Viljandi, very far from my dream of Barceloneta, exploring every trail, every nook, opening up new worlds and universes I had once been indifferent to or ignored. One day in town, I happened upon a mass grave to Estonians executed for their role in the 1905 uprisings. Around the old walls of the fortifications, I have encountered strange stone staircases that seem to emerge from the grass and lead to nowhere. A local hotel has allowed clients to order food or drink to take away, and there is a bottle of disinfectant to use both before and after.
Last night, I saw a man standing on top of the diving platform at the beach, just staring off into the distance. He was just up there in the evening wind, staring away. That’s when I knew he had it too, the same thing I had. Just as I was dreaming of Barcelona, he had his own delusions and fantasies. One of my American friends has even acted on this impulse. He was visiting Indonesia and just decided to stay. Now he is setting up a new life on some remote island. He’s invited me to come and says they have spare bedrooms. I told him I would, as soon as my raft is ready. I’m reading Kon-Tiki to prepare for the eventual voyage. This is what it has come to. We are not going mad in the traditional sense, no, but there is a weird energy to this new quarantined existence. Something, quite honestly, I had never experienced before but that I also enjoy immensely.
Through the forest there is a path that leads to a dock on the lake. It is here that I come almost every day now and meditate. I lie on my back and feel the rhythm of the water, face the sun, breathe, and sun myself like a seal. I turn over and jot down thoughts in my notebook, the same notebook I’ll take with me to Barceloneta. Today I was there and a young woman dressed in blue arrived through the reeds by the lake. “Do you mind if I go for a swim?” she asked me. “Be my guest,” I said, and tried not to look as she disrobed and plunged into the water. She floated there a while in the lake waters and I wrote about my dream of Barcelona in my book. Then she sat beside me on the dock and dried herself in the sun and I set my journal down and we talked a while about writing. I was so tired of thinking, of searching, of striving, I thought. I didn’t need to go anywhere. Not just yet. Even Barcelona could wait. Everything I needed was here.
AFTER THE LITTLE WHITE OWL ceremony there was a euphoric calm for a day or two and I felt the energy of her subside. I took long walks into the forests, photographed dreamy sunsets, concerned myself only with beautiful things while lounging on my secret kai or dock on the lake. Then the radio signals started up again, furious in their intensity. Half the day she prickled all over me like electricity, and then at night the signals only grew stronger. It was like a pounding psychic headache. She, or it, was not happy. She, or it, was displeased. She did not want to be released. She wanted to stay. At night, I crawled into my bed beneath a plump, luxurious feather blanket and she somehow became three-dimensional, even real. She was sitting there at the Sundhöllin public baths in Reykjavik. She was seated at a table near the entrance and she was waiting for someone as she sat. My body came alive (I had never been so aroused), my lips and ears were red and hot with blood. I could feel her energy all over me again, just as it had been the first night we were together, that thick, deep-cut passion. “Tell me,” she whispered to me with those lips of hers. “Tell me now that you are devoted to me.” “No,” I said. “I won’t.” She was more persuasive then and I gave in to the tide of it. “Tell me,” she said. “Tell me. Tell me.” “ALL RIGHT!” I cried. “Yes, yes, yes. I’m yours! Take me.” Like that, her energy flooded into me and found its home within me again. There was no shaking her then, and this is how it would have to be. Devoted to her forever. Pühendunud. You know, I was kind of sad about it, to tell you the truth. I didn’t want to feel her love. But I did. I just did. At night, to take my mind off things, I watched 8 1/2 again. I watched the boys run off to the beach in their capes and beckon Saraghina. “Saraghina — La Rumba!” The dark-haired woman emerges and begins to dance. The boys watch, thunderstruck. Then the monks discover the youths, chase them down, and drag the boy Guido before his mother and before god. How shameful! Utterly shameful! His mother wipes at her eyes. He must seek repentance! Kiss the feet of the Virgin Mary! “Don’t you understand,” the priest tells the boy in confession. “Saraghina is the devil.” “Catholic conscience,” says the director’s confidant in the next scene. Coscienza cattolico. I decided to make peace with her spirit. Her love. Let it be.
‘WHERE IS HE? WHERE DID HE GO?’ At about 10 am this morning, my friend’s girlfriend, as I suppose you could call her, strode into my living room with only the faintest attempt at politeness or civility. I was sitting calmly at my typewriter, a fresh coffee beside me, and only then turned my head to see the distressed middle-aged woman walking my way. She had knocked, I guess, but that was merely to announce her arrival. I had not let her in but the door was open. Perhaps she thought that because the door was open, she could let herself in? “He’s not in here,” I told her. “Well, his car is here,” she harrumphed. “So then where could he be? Tell me where he is!” “He’s in the apartment across the hall. The neighbor let him sleep on her couch.” I dared not venture out of my own place until I heard the door slam later. Then I went in. He was rubbing his face and there was a half empty bottle of bourbon on the table beside his makeshift bed. “Is it safe to come in?” I asked. “Yeah, she’s gone,” he said and sighed. If this was the first time I had this experience I might have had more empathy. But this was the third time. The third time an angry woman has chased him into the far corners of my abode. “You two need to decide whether you will make up or end it,” I told my friend. “My patience is wearing thin with the two of you. I won’t tell you what to do with your relationship, but this is getting old.” “I know,” is all he could tell me. “I know, I know. Women, you know,” he said. “Women, women. All they want is this constant outpouring of love and emotion from you. But I’m tired! I work and I am so damn tired. I can’t just give her it all the time. Do you know why she was mad? Do you? Because I didn’t hear something she was saying in the car about her dentist appointment. Then she lost it. ‘You don’t love me.’ It’s probably true. I just don’t know if I love her anymore like that.”
Yesterday he was in no mood but I was pungent with springtime joy and fervor. Two sloppy fresh coffees from the local roaster (who has a sort of on-the-down-low coffeehouse speakeasy thing going on the side) then to the psychologist who guided me through a release ceremony for this girl who has been in my heart since forever. All we had was some cathartic, geothermal one night stand ages ago and yet she haunts me because it’s the last true intimacy I experienced. The girl is a traveler, you see. She cannot sit still. In the past two months, she’s been in three countries. God knows how many other men she’s had in addition to me. I am just a sordid knot in her pretty belt. Sometimes though when it’s late at night, I just want to crawl up back inside her embrace. I can feel it on me in the mornings still, a kind of primal, sexy heat, like the hot blood and steam a dead seal gives off when the Inuit cut it open. “This young lady is a Gemini,” said the psychologist, who also dabbles in astrology. Her office is on a balcony overlooking the town. You look out and see blooming trees, laundry lines. She is an older woman, a grandmother, and her walls are covered with her grandchildren’s art. There is a mug of hot tea on the table steaming. “Do you know long ago, when the Mongol nomads roamed the steppes, riding over the wild expanses, stopping in different villages, how the women would line up when they arrived on their horses? There. That is your wild Gemini energy right there. This woman is a traveler, a nomad. You cannot keep her. Your subconscious wants to feast on her, but she cannot be kept or tamed. But you must be sure,” she said, “you must be unequivocally sure you want to let her go.” I nodded. It was time. I had to pick from a box of figurines for a vessel or representative. For the traveler, I chose a little white owl.
We placed it in the chair opposite me and began the ceremony. “What is it you wanted from her?” she asked. “Intimacy,” I said. “And what do you want from her now?” “I want her to be free of me. I want her to have a man who loves her, for her to have children. I want her to have a happy life. I want her to be happy. I cannot give her these things as I am.” “But these are nice things to wish for someone,” said the psychologist. “These are actually loving things. I hope you understand that everything that happened between you two was actually a loving experience. It was all very normal. And I want you to tell anyone who ever questions it this, that it was all normal. You are a man, she is a woman, and your energies combined. Now, stand opposite me.” She held out her palms facing up, and I held mine over hers. “Repeat after me. Say her name.” I said her name. “Look at me as if I was her.” I looked. “Tell her that you are taking back any hurt or distress you have caused her. Tell her that you are leaving with her only the love you gave. Leave the love with her. Take back the hurt.” I did as I was instructed and I found myself nearly unable to look in her eyes. Instead I glanced at the little white owl, its tiny blue dots of eyes. When it was over, I fell down onto the soft couch. I was quiet for some time and looked at the small owl, but it felt lifeless, remote, distant, just some play thing. “The story between you and her is now over,” said the psychologist. “That does not mean that this nomad might not return to your village in 10 years’ time. But for now, it’s done.” She instead suggested I focus my energy somewhere else, on a new focal point with the depth of the blue ocean. “You must be able to free yourself from these old ties, so that you can give your love to someone new. Only then can you be pühendunud. Devoted.”
In the evening, my friend returned bearing a gift, a sort of conciliatory move for disturbing the peace with his relationship drama. This time his significant other waited outside and I could see her standing there alone, head facing down, broken and sad. They were together again, but who knew how long it would last. His voice cracked a bit when he handed me the gift, as if his sorrow was sincere, genuine, and deeply felt. But he didn’t really owe me anything. All I gave him was a couch to sleep on, some support. One way or another all of these things end, whether it’s a long, drawn-out death, or on a town balcony focusing on a little white owl. You hold your palms out, leave the love, take the pain. Then the story is over. That does not mean it won’t resume again in 10 years. But for now, it’s done.
LAST NIGHT I DREAMED of a golden cobra, this after a long arduous journey to get back home after a scientific conference in Berlin. The rest of my colleagues had to board some roundabout flight to New York via Cincinnati, and I was left at the docks with my suitcase trying to see if there was any kajut or cabin available on the next ship to Riga. There was, but there was a long line in the sweltering heat, with an end-of-times, overcast humidity over the whole scene, as if we were waiting to board the Lusitania or Titanic. When I did arrive home, the small golden serpent was in the fireplace, like a kind of mechanical trinket or new toy. It began to hiss at me, and I somehow heard a rattle, though cobras do not rattle, or maybe that was the slink of its golden scales? Too often in times of peril I dream of serpents. But what to do about the cobra? I asked all my friends, and they told me to let it free in a marsh somewhere. I had no idea about the impact on wildlife, or if golden cobras could self-reproduce? Hissing, hissing. I mulled it over. What to do about the little snake? Then at the window, another story played out involving a man who fell in love and turned into a little bird. But the heat of the love was so strong it burned him from the inside out until his wings were charcoal and his eyes burned like embers. Burned from the inside out by love. And still the golden cobra in the fireplace, slithering in circles and rings. I had grown attached somehow to the treasure of a thing, there was a fondness, but I had to let it go. There was just no other remedy.
YESTERDAY THE POLICE searched the house across the street. I saw them pull up in their tidy neat blue-and-white cruiser and get out in their neon yellow vests. They looked so perfect and symmetrical, so out of place in this rougher-edged part of the town, where the houses are half-derelict, crooked, and leaning, the facades muddied with dirt and smog. An old man in a black coat with a cane pointed out the house to them, looking like a character from a Paul Revere engraving. Inside, they were looking for something, searching, searching. I could see the flashlights in the lower-floor windows, behind the curtains, poking and probing around. They left with no arrest as far as I could see. Yet later that night, a dreamy snow storm blew in, and the two criminals returned in the shadows. One of them, an older sort, walked me down the street and kept chatting with me and asking me what I had seen of the police. To excuse myself, I went into a friend’s house nearby. You went down a staircase, then through an underground corridor, and came up into the kitchen. There was a party in there, Vesta was with her boyfriend, and I said I had come to collect a few things. “Sure, sure!” she said. “Take your time! But remember to close the door. Don’t let in the cold!” I collected the few things I had left behind, but when I went to leave, I couldn’t find my shoe. There were piles of shoes everywhere but none of them fit me. Vesta came down a few times to help me look, but to no avail. We went back into the kitchen, but it was now full of snow, and looking out the window, I saw a nude woman dive into a hot tub, with steam rising. There was an outdoor party, and an indoor one too, as all the floor was covered with wet snow, and there was a hot tub in the corner of the kitchen now too, a great wooden tunnivann, or barrel tub, which are popular here. I still couldn’t find my shoe and decided I could make it home in my socks. Vesta walked me to the door but before I left, she took me by the hand and whispered, “Come back later and I’ll help you find your shoe.” It was such a warm feeling, delivered with warm hand pressed into warm hand, and my soul was soothed warm with the understanding of such a sugarplum promise.
This piece appears (in Estonian) in the most recent issue of Ajakiri Ema
IT’S 11 AM ON THE SECOND MORNING of the new year and my pancakes are burning. My business partner asked me to clean up some copy and to file a new invoice, and I was doing this after flipping pancakes, keeping the fire going, and trying to pay attention to my youngest daughter’s stories about something that happened with another girl at school. I was trying to pay attention when the wisps of smoke reached me and I turned to see big plumes of it in the kitchen.
Fortunately, I made a lot of batter for this batch, so it’s okay if a pancake or two goes in the trash. I’m used to losing pancakes and other meals the same way. I forget food in the oven. I have to be reminded to take out the trash and when I do take out the trash, I have to be reminded again to deal with a clogged drain in the bathroom. I fix the drain, take out the laundry, and then try to make pancakes again, but burn a few of course. Then the youngest demands juice or milk, which I spill. There’s real mayhem to the whole scene, real anarchy, but at the end of the day, we somehow get through it, and I can even read the youngest a story. Somehow the children are fed, the dishes are clean, and we can sleep in peace, but while they sleep, I lie staring out the window.
From my bedroom window, I can see the Old Water Tower in Viljandi, and for some reason the clouds are very low here. So I can watch the clouds passing behind the tower. This becomes a meditative focus point for me. I watch the Old Water Tower and I go into the zone.
My weak spot as a single father, I think, is multitasking. It always has been my weak spot. I imagine women are geniuses at this. I am sure a few scientific studies have shown this to be true. Women can make the pancakes, keep the fire going, and keep listening to the kids’ stories. Women are more cut out for this kind of life. They can juggle everything at once.
My handicap therefore is that I’m not a woman. I’m a man. I can actually only do one thing well at a time. Give me a task, and I will do it. Assemble the furniture. Fix the wifi. Simple! Time and again, I have amazed people with my ability to complete complex, focus-intensive tasks. But making breakfast, working, and trying to be an attentive parent at the same time is much harder. There is no choice in the matter though. I am a single father now, and I must and will manage.
The term “single father” is political. None of us are really single parents. Each one of us — with a few exceptions — is born to two parents, and even if one of them isn’t there, that doesn’t mean that they don’t exist. I have a friend who fits the classic definition of the single mother — the father of her daughter long ago cut off all contact — but that doesn’t mean the child doesn’t ask questions about who her father is, or miss his presence in her life. He does exist, somewhere out there, and so even though her mother is raising her alone, her father is present in his absence.
I am not a single parent in that responsibility is shared with the mother of our children. I am not a single parent in that we co-parent, the kids move freely between both households, and we even celebrate Christmas together. This is not the kind of single parenting you see in movies. This is more like decentralized parenting. Canada is no longer a colony of the British Empire, but it’s still part of the Commonwealth of Nations. Queen Elizabeth II is still their monarch and her face is still on their money. This is the political situation. It’s the best way I can explain how things function.
I am a single parent though in the sense that I live with one of my children and with nobody else. I am single in that I am responsible for the upkeep of my home and I am single in that I sleep in a twin bed that can only accommodate one person. How this came to be is a story like any other. What I can tell you is that since January 2017, I have been living with my second daughter, Anna, here in Viljandi. The eldest has moved to New York to go to school, and the youngest is living with her mother in the south. On occasion, I am lucky enough to have all three of my daughters here. That’s when I become a short order cook and make food all day long and burn some pancakes. Somehow we manage to survive and even have a good time.
When all three children are here, it’s actually easier. The eldest is a teenager now — 16 — and she helps with the youngest, who is eight. She makes her take a shower and combs her hair and helps her with her clothes. The middle child — the one who lives full time with me — has become incredibly self reliant and independent in all of these years growing up with dad. She wants food, clean laundry, and maybe some entertainment. She mostly asks for money. Even if I see her on the street, she’ll pick me clean of five euros and then be on her way with her friends to a shop.
I chiefly entertain the kids by taking them hiking, usually to one of the trails in Soomaa, which is near Viljandi. Or we go to the movies. I have seen so many kids movies, you have no idea. I think the girls watched Mary Poppins two or three times. My skill is cooking. This is one of the ways I know how to be a parent. I make them gnocchi with Bolognese sauce. It’s one of the few ways I can pass any Italian culture to them. At least my children know what Pecorino Romano is. At least they know something!
I suppose most mothers would disapprove of the scene when all three of them are here. There is no law or order. I am too busy making dinner and putting laundry out to run some kind of tight ship. I am not Captain Von Trapp from The Sound of Music with his whistle. The youngest rides her bike around the house, the other two talk to friends or watch films. They are free, in essence, to do whatever they want, so long as they stay alive. Yet we do survive — that’s the most important part — and I’m proud that we manage together. Maybe there is no bedtime, maybe I don’t feel like washing the dishes, but everybody’s awake the next morning. It’s truly a cause for celebration.
I do feel sometimes that I have no script or manual on how to do this. Yet I know many fathers have done what I’ve done. My neighbor was raised mostly by her father. It’s not unusual. When you are living alone with one child, though, you have to take on both roles. You have to be father and mother sometimes and this is hard to do. As kind as I am, as tender as I can be, I can never give them that motherly feeling you get when you rest your head on a soft chest because my chest is hard. Or when you come home and there’s some lovely woman standing with an apron on and she gives you a wet kiss on the cheek. That never happens in my house. I just can’t give them those kinds of motherly experiences. I suppose it’s not my responsibility to even try.
Sometimes I’m aware of how pathetic the whole show I am running is. They see some 40-year-old man struggling each day. Someone who is tired. Someone who is focused on writing all the time, and for what purpose? I try to help them understand that without all this typing that goes on, there can be no movies, no trip to the spa in Pärnu, no flights to New York, and no toys.
I don’t have much of a personal life. There are no dates with women, no dining out at restaurants, no going to the movies or on trips. I know Brad Pitt has a hundred children and can manage to do those kinds of things, but I can’t. I don’t go out to parties or concerts that often, but I can get out sometimes if I need to. I don’t think the children think I would ever remarry. They have somehow gotten used to the idea that their father is alone and that’s just how it is. The idea of bringing some new disruptive female personality into the equation also seems complicated. It would bring into force a new political reality. I am sure everything would be reorganized in about 45 minutes.
On most days, I recognize that I just don’t have time for anything like that. My job is not to have that kind of life right now. My job is to make the dinner and clean up the cat vomit. Someone needs to fix the curtain that fell. This is my real purpose in life. Of course, I have a dream life too. This has taken on greater significance in these years. For me, my dream life is more nourishing to the soul than my real life. This is why writing helps me. It helps me to cope.
The girls are changing too. Only the youngest is still affectionate with me. The older ones? Not so much. Those little girls who used to hang on me now cringe when I hug them. I try to tell them they look nice, or are very smart, because supposedly this will help build their self esteem. They brush away any compliments, but I keep on saying them. My eldest daughter Marta used to tell me everything. Now I don’t know what’s going on. We keep in touch via applications. Skype. Whatsapp. Being a father to her from so far away has proved to be nearly impossible on a day-to-day basis. Yet I am still here, and I think my existence counts for something in all this.
Proximity isn’t everything though. Anna used to ask me to read her stories long ago. Now I have to knock to even speak to her. I knock and she asks, “What do you want?” “Your dinner’s ready.” “Oh. I guess I’ll come.” I go in her room sometimes, sheepishly, and ask how she is. She tells me, “I’m fine. Now can you please leave? And make sure to shut the door behind you. Really shut it.” Anna has also adopted the Estonian habit of ending the call without saying goodbye. I’ll be standing in the supermarket talking to her for a minute or two and then realize she’s no longer listening. Then I feel really foolish.
It’s hard to discipline them as a father, I admit. All my life I have heard so many stories about what abusive, terrible people men are to women, so that I treat my daughters with kid gloves. I can’t be too strict. It’s very complicated for a man who is almost two meters tall to be hard on his daughters.When I do have to set them straight, I try to be as honest and forthcoming as possible. I’m not sure if it works though. They’re pretty much the same people they have always been.
Some people would characterize me as a passive father, or a passive man. Yet in my experience, it’s been those tough guys who are the first to crack under pressure and go running to the forests or for a bottle of vodka. They’re the ones who hit midlife and suddenly “fall in love” with some chick they met at a bar. You have to know when to pick your battles. You have to keep moving.
Only once in a while do I recall those first few nights alone with my second daughter. It was the middle of winter, we had just moved into that first apartment. It felt like Napoleon in exile. I remember watching the snow drifting down beyond the windows, listening to the little girl sigh in her sleep. Back then, it felt like an incomprehensible turn of events. I couldn’t understand what was going on. I felt so weak and so vulnerable, completely at the mercy of the universe. Now I feel this experience has made me much stronger. I can take on anything. I’ve become resilient.
I have been very fortunate, I think, in that unlike fathers of the past, I have spent a lot of time with my children. Even when I was a kid, I would usually see my father at dinner and on the weekends. He had an office and he went to it. He would go away on business trips. Other than steaks cooked on the grill, I think he made me two meals in my entire life, and one of them was a bagel. I’m not sure if he even knows how to make pancakes. My mother would take me aside and say, “Here, let me teach you how to cook. Someday, you will make a woman very happy.” She didn’t know then that I would wind up living in a little northern land called Estonia. Had she known that, she might have taught me more about animal husbandry or forestry. No matter. Maybe these “women” I was supposed to make happy weren’t my love interests. Maybe they were these small women I’ve wound up raising at times. I make them plenty of pancakes, and when they get a whole plate full of them, covered in butter and syrup, they are happy indeed.
LAST NIGHT’S nighttime immersion. Another sloppy mash up, but this time with Britishers all around, including Ian Will, who was an old marketing exec I used to see at meetings doing card tricks and seducing girls at the bar (and a happily married father of two, I might add) and there he is across the table with me in some office building in London, and I am surrounded by all of these cheeky twit Britishers around, cracking jokes I cannot understand (meantime I need to do an interview, but it’s like a goddamn Monty Python sketch, Monty Python meets The Office, yes) and they just won’t shut up. I take the interview into a phone booth in the corridor (because those still exist in dreams), but it’s no use, and somehow I tumble down into a bathtub with a familiar writer’s long and luscious legs around me. But, you know, it’s not sexual, she just wants to comment on my new efforts. (“They could be better,” she says. “You know you’re more talented than that,” she adds.) So, yes. In the time of pandemics and death, I find myself dreaming of England, old stone walls, haunted graveyards, war memorials, black taxis, pubs with fat sausages and mash and thick pints of beer, crummy tabloid newspapers with nonsensical headlines, gray-white weather, and that winsome brook in Duxford that gurgles over the road. Missing, missing England. Missing England in March. Missing the hot and the cold taps, and filling the bath, sliding in and watching the lovely weather presenter in East Anglia. Look East! I never learned her name either. Never needed to.