I’ll never forget how lonely I felt in Tallinn—standing like an island in a rough sea of early twenty-somethings about to embark on another Friday night bender. Me: at least seven years older than all of them, remote, and incapable of conversation. Them: throwing back can after can of Baltic beer to keep pace with drinking games I’d long tired of, swapping taunts, high-fives, full-toothed grins, steely-eyed and sure-footed, engaged in that tacky peacock kind of flirting I knew some of them would never outgrow. All of us: tossed in the storm of incorrigible youth.
Ava was with me only a week ago, but we were elsewhere then. (Copenhagen.) Her train had been late, and I paced back and forth beneath the massive clock in Central Station, hoping she would save me from the reality that I had no one there. (She did.) My hostel was hotelish: sterile, automated, indifferent to chance encounters. So I was lucky to have met her last August: Finn by birth, Dane by residence, then a bleach blonde sore thumb on the Amalfi Coast. She shared a pizza with me. She spoke too many languages. She said, If you’re ever in Denmark. (I was.)
Ava: this stranger, this stranger, who I once knew for just three days some three hundred and sixty-five ago took my hand and pulled me through Nyhavn, along waterfront townhouses heavy with that orange halo found only yea close to the Arctic Circle, and into Christiana, where we nibbled on plantain nachos and I taught her Holy Moses and we coughed through conversations about the things we thought could save us, until, on my return trip to the bar, I turned back to our table and saw all of this at once, these dioramas of my life, every scene reverberating into every other, and each, equally unpredictable yet inevitably culminating in the one before me: Ava’s hair, windswept and white in the moonlight.
Ah. Holy Moses. Of this I am convinced: that the world is so beautiful and small that sometimes I can touch all of it at once.
Fast-forward to Saturday evening. I dined at a table for one in Tallinn and watched the encroaching weather swallow the same moon that once hung above Ava. The clouds above Estonia, I thought. The rain tapped against the window as I counted the minutes until the twenty-something bacchanalia would get underway again. Around me, groups of friends whispered in foreign tongues. Outside, lovers leaned into one another under umbrellas. I wiped absentmindedly at the ring in the tablecloth where sat my last glass of rye and cursed myself for overcorrecting—for booking a room at a raucous hostel in an attempt to manufacture more chance encounters but ending up only with this: The clouds above Estonia. The phrase swam around in my head, its origin mysterious but perfectly distilling how far away I felt from everyone around me.
I met Sam and Sophie only four days ago, but I must have been something more then. (Magnetic?) I watched them pass a one-hitter back and forth across a courtyard in Stockholm, hoping that they would walk over and save me from a group of Oxbridge gits. (They did.) Sam was a butterfly: brilliant, weightless, an American reborn on the road after ending his first life building machines of death for the Navy. Sophie was a bee: sharp as a stinger, a’buzz with opinions, a young Dutch academic looking for the last flowers of her spring. We loved to debate. We loved to despair. We loved to dance on the sidewalk next to people waiting to get into overrated clubs. Sam said, Hit me up if you come back to Europe next summer. (I would.)
Sam and Sophie: together, together we discovered Little Saturday and with it, a small piece of Gamla Stan we’ll never be able to share with anyone else—a town fending off the first throes of autumn and electric, as we swept in and out of alleyways and up from cellars like ghosts, unsettled and unfinished, shouting about how we needed more more more than what we had always been told was enough, until, sweat drenched, we slipped out onto a fire escape, and I stared up at the moon as Sam ranted about how I’d be right back here in ten years, but in his shoes. Sophie smirked. Sam handed me his one-hitter. Then we went back inside.
My last night in Tallinn almost ended at Club Hollywood. At nearly four in the morning, I watched the last few flames erupt from the guitar necks of a heavy metal band and burn out above an undead crowd before I pushed my way out of a side door. It had been a repeat of the evening before: hours of half-conversations and of self-flagellation, for my inability to connect with anyone and for my inability to decide whether I was even worth connecting with. And so, as crowds and couples scattered through the streets of the old town, here I found myself once more: headed home with only what was left of my beer.
Overhead, I noticed that the clouds had begun to disperse. By the time I reached the center of the square, I could see the moon again, and lo, the stars now too. Apropos of nothing, though perhaps it was the booze, I suddenly had the urge to sit. And so I did: cross-legged, another island, this time in a sea of cobblestone, remote, and awash in the early morning quiet. It was there, looking up at the cosmos, that I thought about loneliness—how it has so little to do with being alone and so much to do with knowing that everyone else around you is not.
Now and then, I can’t help but convince myself that I’ve finally come to some kind of turning point: that the good days are gone because something inside of me has been extinguished or lost, and that, as a result, there will be no more strangers or wild nights or mystical experiences; no more happenstance that will carry to me friends for life or stir up those touch-the-world sensations; only the kind of days I’d had in Tallinn, where I was a part of life and yet apart from it. These thoughts are dismal and scary and paralyzing. They are the clouds above Estonia.
But then, on that final night of my trip, I was able to push the clouds aside. Because I turned my thoughts to Ava. I turned them to Sam and Sophie. I turned them to Faith, Hope, and Grace, to Albert and Erin and Rachel, to all of the people who will never be named, and especially to all of the Steves, who have seen me through the calm seas and the stormy weather—both on the road and off of it—and especially to the times and places that wove us all together. And I grinned.
The clouds sweep in at the first moment of loneliness, and out of them pours self-doubt and insecurity and isolation—a type of separation from the dynamism of all things. Sometimes, they settle for just a few hours. Other times, they settle for days or weeks on end. But the clouds are necessary. Yes, sitting there alone in that square, nursing my last inch of tepid beer, for perhaps the first time in my life, I didn’t run from them. Because this is what I realized: without the clouds above Estonia, I may seldom appreciate how lucky I am, more often than not, to live in the moonlight.
Holy Moses. How lucky.
Image courtesy of Bernd Thaller. Some rights reserved.