The following novel was originally written in English, thereafter translated by the author into Greek and published by Kastaniotis Publications in 2008 under the title Ο αφανισμός του Νίκου.
So, this is intended for the enjoyment of readers alone – any other use of the text consists copyright infringement.
The story is quite simple: Nicos, a young Athenian gay man living in the 00s finds out he’s dying of AIDS and decides to travel back in time to prevent not only his birth, but his very conception (by preventing his parents, in the early 70s, from so much as ever encountering one another). But fate being cruel and inescapable, Nicos ends up instead involved in a weird love triangle with his parents – or, rather, with their unsuspecting guileless selves, younger than him by a decade.
Also, please bear in mind that as Greek is the author’s mother tongue, the English of the novel’s original version – untouched by a native speaker, unedited and poured out in white heat – may often leave much to be desired.
Last but not least, remember that this is a work of fiction; if anyone should feel offended by it I apologize, but once more: it’s just harmless fiction; just a book.
The Obliteration of Nicos
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I’ll be dead within a year, thinks Nicos – a man condemned, as certain of the fact as one awaiting execution. Not that he’ll actually be executed; capital punishment was abolished in Greece a year before he was born, sadly too late (the last man executed being flagrantly innocent). And yet Nicos knows he is to suffer as much as any death-row inmate – more, even. He is going to become ill, monstrously ill; his body will be devoured by a multitude of cancers; he will be probed and stuffed with bright yellow poisons that’ll make him even sicker; he will receive a compulsory, futile treatment – which will feel like an additional humiliation, like a punishment; he will lie helpless in the hands of helpless strangers, people frustrated by their own helplessness and nurturing the irresistibly vicious suspicion that what he suffers is awful yet just – the mere fruit of his aberrance.
Nicos has AIDS. He found out a month ago, following an examination of what he thought was a baffling yet benign whitening of the tongue, coupled by the astute physician with a persistent diarrhea of which he complained. The blood test simply sealed his fate – for as the resident virologist lugubriously informed him, his wasn’t a case of HIV but the full-blown dreaded syndrome.
Of course, all is not lost, he’d added. They would immediately begin an intensive treatment; he would be given the various new-and-hopefully-more-potent cocktails; he would even receive special monthly AIDS-related benefits.
However, Nicos had sensed, above all else, the underlying boredom in the good doctor’s jargon, the vanitas vanitatum in his weary eyes. And at once he knew what he was being told. It was unthinkable but really rather simple. He was going to die.
The history of man can be read as a history of carelessness; of willfully exposing himself to danger, of defying his obvious vulnerability against the elements of Nature and the creatures that walk the Earth, of ultimately pursuing immortality (and ultimately failing to achieve it). As with all stories one may read between the lines, perceiving the evolution of mankind either as the glorious chronicle of a species passionate to the point of foolhardiness, or as the sad tale of a race of cowards and losers, who refuse to accept the simple truth accepted by every living thing from protozoon to blue whale – namely, that death is invincible.
Whichever attitude we choose, one thing is certain: to shy away from death is human. It is the absolute delusion, it is our trademark, stemming, like speech, romance and music (like all things which to other living organisms must seem so very peculiar) from the greediness of an overdeveloped nervous system, loath to concede that at some point the stimuli of life will cease to reach it.
Nobody really wants to die; even suicides need a split second of insanity to commit their awe-inspiring act. But to deny the utmost fact is to deny its causes – the deterioration, the everyday decay; to scorn the microscopic invaders, to laugh at the frail coronary vessels, to disrespect the passing of time. What we don’t know can’t hurt us.
This is a viewpoint especially popular in Nicos’s motherland. Perhaps it is the ancient roots, the artifacts; or the general disposition of a sea-and-sun-bred people, to whom the idea of non-existence is intrinsically repellent – how can such lively, boisterous creatures as the Greeks surrender to the quietude of death?
The same mentality pretty much applied to the AIDS-scare, when it first hit the coasts of these unsuspecting children of Pan; the heterosexual population in particular (having a more realistic shot at immortality through reproduction) continued to live – and some of them, sadly, still do – in a state of blissful insouciance, indifferent to this strictly gay plague. It was natural to be a bit careless if one preferred women (or if not natural, then certainly forgivable; abortions were long being performed legally).
Nicos preferred men; always had. So why hadn’t he been tested earlier? How could he have been so criminally short-sighted?
Ah, because Nicos had abstained – almost entirely; he’d passed the thirty years of his life, half of them potentially active, in complete and utter celibacy, with just one exception; a single insignificant exception. And he’d chosen not to think about this instance because it had been painful, shameful and totally distasteful.
But the instance itself, like a spurned lover, like Sleeping Beauty’s uninvited wicked stepmother, had been thinking about him constantly, brewing its venom, plotting, weaving its curse.
Come, says the girl. Come, we’ll just lie down together.
The sun has set on the day of November 8th 1989 – a Wednesday. In a matter of hours, the Berlin Wall is going to be torn down. In a matter of minutes, a different kind of wall will crumble; privately, in the girl’s dim-lit room. In both cases the changes, brought about by men and women working with their bare hands, will be tremendous.
It is Nicos’s fifteenth birthday – he’s a Scorpio, but one without the supposed decisiveness; it took him a whole month of preparations and a day of actual agony to come here and give himself this dubious birthday present. Now he’s having second thoughts.
He came to this place because most of the boys at school claim this neighborhood as their haunt. Phylìs Street is one long congregation of brothels – a street notorious and legendary. Over the years, its tiny, decrepit houses have swallowed the loneliness and bitterness of millions. And men in their mid-teens can still be seen smoking and looking hesitantly at the red-lit, never-closed doorways, often accompanied by their father or an older brother; many Greeks still think of one’s first visit to a whore as a rite of passage.
Looking at this girl, Nicos can scarcely understand why. First of all, she’s not really a girl; despite the misleading dimness she is evidently thirtyish, an age quite mature by his youth’s standards. She is also desperately available – her assent has been bought. So in what way can this possibly be a conquest? Nicos can think, right off the top of his head, of at least ten girls in his class who have confided to him (to the shy and possibly effeminate and thus least menacing classmate) their having deep, torturing crushes on certain of these whorehouse-frequenting adolescents. Why reject their much more desirable charms, which would be given them for free, over this costly nightmare, this parody of romance?
Come on, baby, she says, patting the empty half of the bed with a long-manicured hand, the nails painted black. I can’t take it anymore, I want you so much. Come – you won’t last a minute in my mouth, I’ll suck you dry.
Maybe it’s the familiar turn of phrase, thinks Nicos, terrified, unconsciously stepping away from the bed. For the words she’s just spoken are the dialogue of every single porn flick he’s ever watched, trying in vain to arouse his dormant masculinity. The girl looks him in the eye, winks, pats the bed again. Don’t make me wait, she says, I’m crazy about black-haired boys. More than half of Greece’s general population have black hair. But maybe it’s the faked lust, the whole theatrics: a whore is a woman who desires everybody.
Another minute passes in silence. She’s staring at him, licking her lips, playing with her large, perfectly round chocolate nipples, burying an extended middle finger between her fanning legs; trying to imply passion and sexual frenzy. Yet Nicos knows she’s counting every precious second, longing to get it over with so that she’ll have time for a smoke before the next john; maybe she’s thinking about her overdue rent, a favourite pop hit, her boyfriend or her pimp (who may be one and the same). She’s bored and restless and try as she might it shows. Nicos feels another surge of panic, this one tinged with guilt: he had no right to add to this miserable creature’s troubles, no right to mock her ancient trade merely to test or cure himself. He almost wishes she’d tell him to leave, kick him out – he deserves it.
And then she suddenly withdraws the self-stroking hand, sits up, and with a voice quite different from her former meowing says, Come on kiddo, we ain’t got all night, you know.
This is it, he says to himself, sweating, trembling, his heart a time bomb. This is it; he either goes to her or runs. At least now he knows this to be a fraud, a teenager’s myth. He knows it can’t cure him. There is no shame in running away from such a woman.
She crosses her shapely smooth legs, reaches for the nightstand, fumbles, lights a cigarette; inhales; exhales – violently, with undisguised impatience. You know I’m getting paid either way, she says, spitefully. It’s your choice, kid.
These are the crucial words, the turning point; the momentary alleviation of any sense of morality, decency, empathy; the moment it takes to decide whether giving money to a street urchin or a beggar or a junkie really helps them, the picosecond in which the ego moves in front of common sense and better judgment, a dark disc eclipsing the sun which ought to shine upon our actions. At that precise moment Nicos seizes his infernal guilt and strangles it. I don’t care about this woman’s misery, he suddenly thinks, because she doesn’t care about mine; she doesn’t give a fuck that I suffer day and night, feeling things I oughtn’t to feel, burying my lust, forever hungry; she just sees me as pending money, a tiresome customer. Well, she’s gonna give me money’s worth. Let’s see her try and suck me dry.
Shivering despite the oppressive heat of the radiator, he begins to undress; kicking off his shoes furiously; wrestling with his belt; peeling his jeans almost with the same shaking desire he feels while stripping other boys in his wet dreams. But when at last he’s standing in his underpants, all energy and vindictiveness have been spent; he’s become once more an awkward, hairless virgin, on the threshold of an encounter he fears, which he finds physically repulsive.
Fortunately (or rather, unfortunately), the die has been cast; taking her cue from his trembling boyish nakedness, the woman puts out her cigarette at once and, crawling on the bed on all fours, reaches for the waistband of his boxer shorts and pulls.
Nicos has closed his eyes, horribly aware of his shrunk, ignominious cock. He’s trying to block all senses, but reality forces itself upon him as does the girl, sucking him in; suddenly he’s suffocating from the stench of the place – what he believes to be tons of decaying sperm but which in fact is a noxious, powerful disinfectant; pity that the dreadful chemicals doesn’t extend to their insides; that there’s no disinfectant for the soul. The hooker’s mouth, traveling from his shrivelled penis to his lips and back, smells like an ashtray filled with old stale cigarette butts, on which someone has spit up a gob of phlegm and bile: his first kiss, the only kiss, will taste of Marlboro and vomit.
(What Nicos doesn’t and will never know is that the poor woman at the same time feels towards him a combination of immense tenderness and exasperation. She has a son the same age as he, who, in spite of his doting mother’s sacrifices despises her, calling her names, stealing from her, once even hitting her. Last week she caught him in the bathroom tying a belt around his arm, his elbow a map of needle marks. At least I don’t get fucked in the ass for a thousand drachmas! he’d shouted. So she knows about the foolishness, the obstinacy, the death wish of the young. She’d like to protect this boy, tell him to keep away from the filth, but she needs the money, and a cigarette. His eyes shut while her tongue moves around the smooth teenage pot belly, she takes a furtive glance at the cigarette she put out moments before; it’s still smoking. What a waste, she thinks).
All the while, Nicos is lost in a place of fantasy, which he tries to conjure piecemeal so that he can get it up: scraps of dreams, glimpses stolen at the school’s locker rooms, a naked Frankenstein creature assembled from parts of various Hollywood stars (a bit of Mel Gibson, a bit of Tom Cruise, Harrison Ford in Frantic, which he saw the day before); he even tries to picture some of his delectable classmates in his current position, plowing away at this cheap whore, all sweaty and delirious and wild – yet he remains flaccid. How come it gets rock-hard when I’m alone? he wonders, despairing. Why couldn’t this thing be like a switch – up you go, down you go. How lucky women are! But he has anyway accepted long ago the fact that physical love, at least for him, is meant to be a solitary thing.
The girl’s jaws are beginning to ache from this futility; she thinks she ought to try a different approach with this petrified boy. Straddling him, of course, is out of the question – she’d never get it in. No doggie-style either – he lacks the conviction. Right then she has an idea: why not try the simple thing? Classics are classics.
She lets the slithery cock slip from her mouth and lies on her back, spreading her legs. For a terrible moment, the unseeing Nicos thinks she’s given up on him, got up and left. Then she says, her voice once more the purring of a cat, Come on, pretty boy, ride me, tear me apart.
It’s a joke really. Yet he complies. His eyes opening just for as long as it takes him to position his disgraceful half-cockstand in front of the hairy beckoning darkness, Nicos throws himself upon her, inside her, collapses like a dying animal on top of her. For the approximately thirty seconds it takes him to reach the deliverance of a pathetic orgasm, the woman wonders briefly whether she ought to have made him put on a rubber. But he’s so young and so tragically a virgin; he’s harmless. Even the slightest risk can be avoided with a nice douche afterwards.
Two minutes and twenty-two seconds later, Nicos rushes out of the brothel. He has left a small part of himself inside her. She has left an even smaller one inside him.
He’s early again. The coffee shop won’t open till nine, there’s no reason to while the city sleeps. But sleep has become an extremely elusive thing these days. It is as though, learning about its imminent destruction, his body revolts at the idea of lying down, doing nothing; it wants to cherish the few remaining months, living at its fullest. And Nicos can’t help following it around, dragged here and there like a gloomy puppet.
In the relative darkness of the kitchen he makes himself a cup of instant coffee with three sugars and lots of cream. Why worry about caffeine and calories and cholesterol? Why worry about anything anymore?
He brings the steaming mug with him and sits at the bar. He takes a sip of coffee, nibbles a cinnamon cookie; gazes outside at the square, at the emptiness of dawn. How much longer will he be able to enjoy such simple pleasures? They won’t have decent instant coffee at the hospital – only the venomous stuff of vending machines; he won’t be able to look at the square every morning, his square; the sunlight will be rationed like the drugs, he won’t be able to wear normal clothes, he’ll have to sleep on his back, a piece of modern sculpture: Naked Man with Tubes. He never sleeps on his back, he just can’t. I’ll be spending my last days sleepless, he thinks. Without so much as an hour of not having to think about the end.
He’ll probably have the place to himself for another two hours at least, so he ventures a little Schubert: Gretchen am Spinnrade, from Faust.
My peace is gone, my heart is heavy, sings the lovely soprano; dreary stuff. But Nicos can empathize – he knows a thing or two about heavy hearts.
He listens to the rest of the disc, thinking about Goethe’s doomed hero; his transactions in particular. He’d gladly sell his own soul to the Devil if only his health were restored, if he could be magically cleansed from the virus. He’s been thinking too much about magic and the supernatural lately; he knows it’s unhealthy but he can’t help it. After all, in a year at most he’ll be part of the supernatural himself – it’s either that or wormfood. Still, if ever a magical thing such as the soul existed, he’d give his away in a second. He’s dying – unloved. His soul is useless.
Reality is once again up and about. The square has woken up and so have the omnivorous, overweight and filthy pigeons, the junkies – their faces bewildered from a night’s sleep on the hard wooden benches –, the kiosk owners and the first idle passers by. Attorney trainees, wearing impeccable suits that clash with their youth and which will be soaked in sweat in a couple of hours (Greece has such a fierce sun), sleepy-eyed university students in their early twenties, on their way to morning classes during which they’ll be most likely nodding off, silver-haired housewives, always the first to enter the nearby supermarket – shoppers with a vengeance –, old men dragging their feet to the bank so that the evil bankers won’t shortchange them (they fought in the Second World War, they did!); various people with various faces, all of them driven on by life.
The Sunflower, Nicos’s shop, has also livened up considerably; Zoì, tiny and plump and forty-two but looking twenty, has assaulted her boss’s deathly inertia head-on: first she got rid of the Schubert (It’s like a funeral! Such depressing music! Pff! No wonder you look like this!) and replaced the immortal lieder with the mortal but much more cheerful Madonna, whom she adores more than the Mother of Christ herself; then she turned on all the lights, filled the coffee machine with fresh beans, and gulped down two double espressos (Ugh! This stuff will be the death of me, but I’ll never wake up otherwise! ) with no sugar (Damn my big fat ass!); and then, when she’d made sure everything was in order and that the Sunflower was spic and span, she attached herself onto Nicos like a leech, smothering him with sisterly kisses, ruffling his hair, pinching his cheeks and screeching with delight like a piglet.
Zoì is madly devoted to Nicos. An underprivileged, unattractive, lonely woman, she views him as more than just a friend: he is her benefactor, a man who, although incredibly smart and educated (and clearly indifferent to women) has not only employed her, but treats her as an equal, often letting her play boss of this sophisticated coffeehouse (which she insists on calling a ‘chic sophisticated café ’, even preparing the sandwiches and dishes of assorted delicacies herself). Her mantra, a thing she’s said over a million times, is, Where would I be without you? And she means it every single time.
So today, trapped in this cage of genuine affection, Nicos feels doubly rotten: Zoì is the dearest person in his life (a thing in itself quite sad) and he’ll be forced to abandon her. He hasn’t told her anything yet and he doesn’t think he will. Of course he must, at some point, reveal the truth; take care of the legalities, bequeath her the Sunflower, say his goodbyes. But he can’t think of that far into the future – it’s too hard. For the time being, he has to fake at least some pleasure at Zoì’s antics, pretend that she’s infected him with liveliness. The smiling exhausts him – he’s too infected with death to feel anything besides guilt, loneliness or sorrow.
No one can come with me, he thinks. She may be there till the last moment, holding my hand and smiling and crying, but when I close my eyes I’ll be alone and she’ll remain here, holding a dead man’s hand and finally able to sob full blast like I know she will. And then she’ll go on, as will life – the meaning of her name in Greek.
By noon the Sunflower and everything surrounding it are suffused with life. The winter day, owing to some freak greenhouse disturbance, has rapidly degenerated into a sweet springtime travesty, sunny and warm and summer-smelling. It is impossible to witness such a day and still believe in the death of anything, of anyone; and yet.
Exárhia Square, on the shores of which the Sunflower grows, has long been a sea where the unwanted swim – a haven for the desolate and the decadent. Here the impoverished Greek writers and painters and musicians have lived and squatted over the decades; here the politically deviant, the left-wing and the anarchists and those wrongly called terrorists have hidden, spreading the noble word, revelling, dreaming, and sometimes dying from the hatred of unbelievers; junkies and peddlers and illegal aliens and students from the withering Greek countryside still favour this islet of urban decay, where they feel welcome, and can get cigarettes or beer or 1ml syringes or souvlakia at 4 in the morning. Whoever may be driven to disaster by a passion loves Exárhia.
To Nicos, though, the square bears an even deeper significance. This is the place where his first infatuations sprang up and matured and died in silence. He and his fellow students from the English Lit Department of the Kapodístrian University used to haunt the then undeveloped, seedy bars and coffeehouses as if their life depended on it, drinking oceans of bitter café frappé, playing pinball and backgammon and listening to anachronistic 70’s rock, wishing that they had lived at those times of revolt and untimely death rather than in the tepid early 90’s. Nicos recalls that misused youth with infinite tenderness, touching it gently like one touches a newborn baby, a bubble of rose-scented memory: it is the private balm of his soul, the only one that’s left to him. Of course it wasn’t a time of unadulterated joy – Nicos has known no such time. He remembers vividly the pain of never speaking about his flaming lust, that flame which seemed to burn without any air, locked up inside him and consuming him, stealing the oxygen from his blood, leaving him breathless, mute and suffocated by desire. Yet even the memory of that pain is a blessing compared to his actual devastation. He’d had to do a lot of acting back then. He’d participate in the general girl-craving and TV actress-idolizing and even, when push came to shove, invent a perfectly fictitious girlfriend, usually a very young and devout one – so that he’d have an excuse for never bringing her to any of the parties. He’d listen to the three Nirvana albums again and again, pretending that he shared the others’ admiration, their religious dedication to the band (when in fact he thought very little of the songs, tolerating them only because they were all the rage and because he had a slight crush on the late Kurt Cobain). What silliness, he thinks in retrospect; no, not silliness – what willful stupidity. It would have been so easy to come out; so ridiculously simple. They never actually believed him, the guys – they were just too polite and kind and good a friend to point out the obvious when he himself wouldn’t even give a hint. But how could I betray their trust? he asks, in silent self-defense. How could I muddy the waters of male bonding? (a thing held sacred in Greece). He just couldn’t. He’d rather have them as friends and tantalizing objects of desire than lose them altogether; he’d had enough of not belonging in his mind – he needed reality to disprove this feeling of monstrousness. So he’d said nothing. What good would it have done anyway, he thinks now with bitter resignation. I’d merely have spread the disease, I’d have unknowingly sentenced a number of people to death.
At twenty-five, the ducklings of this comfortable nest grew up overnight, becoming adventurous male ducks, flying to the UK to pursue postgraduate studies, losing themselves in relationships with fervent clinging she-ducks, or dying their wings khaki to serve in the Greek army. Nicos was left alone, a graceless sexless swan. The total deprivation of romance had left him somewhat incapacitated socially – there seemed to be no point in doing what everyone else did when there would always exist a part of life (perhaps the most meaningful one) unknown and inaccessible to him. An only child with overindulgent parents, he succumbed to a sort of apathy, letting things happen to him without really being there: thanks to some childhood friend of his father’s he evaded the draft, provided with an overtly dramatic diagnosis by a psychiatrist he’d never even met (a good thing, since close encounters of the military kind terrified him); when he expressed the wish to move to a one-room apartment in downtown Athens, he met no resistance – his mother actually sold part of her inheritance in Thessaloníki, her birthplace, and bought the flat, making sure all documents were in his name; and when at twenty-nine he decided that, although he couldn’t remain forever idle (he was starting to get a sore behind from sitting at cafés all day; plus, he was in danger of becoming an alcoholic from the constant solitary drinking) he wasn’t at all interested in the teaching profession, his parents never demanded, as most parents would, to know why. The truth was he couldn’t bear to be in the proximity of teenage boys; the very thought upset him terribly; and he couldn’t very well advertise himself as a girls-only teacher without arousing equal suspicion. But in the end he was spared the embarrassment; a friend of the family, owner of one of his beloved Exárhia cafés, sold them the place for a song. His parents helped him pay for the redecoration (he was too proud to accept the whole sum; and too ashamed because what he called his own money was really the result of the accumulated allowance they were still giving him). And so the Sunflower was born.
It has been more than livelihood to him; far more. Though inexperienced, and daunted at first by the numerous technicalities, Nicos soon realized that the ownership of this place gave his existence its long absent colours. His life might have nothing worhty of being called happiness (indeed, one could say he had no life at all), but being and working at the Sunflower provided an excellent substitute: the lives of others. In a couple of months he was totally addicted. He could sit all day long serving coffees and mixing drinks (for like many Greek coffeehouses, the Sunflower in the night mutated into a bar), the docile and grateful servant of kids ten years his junior, secretly feeding on their animation, on the brightness of their lives. Then Zoì was hired, along with a professional bartender and various, changing young waitresses (waiters he avoided on purpose). He could now rest and enjoy the splendor he’d created. He began to befriend some of his steady customers, having minor, distant conversations on which he privately feasted: films, books, trips, parents and lovers, the alarming promiscuity of the millennium generation. All these things were offered to him casually, as to a pleasant host – for the Sunflower had by then become his real home. He’d appear everyday carrying an oriental cushion, a lantern he’d bought at an antique store, a kilim from a flea market; moving vans unloaded sofas and ottomans and lava lamps; bead curtains and bowls for potpourris and ebony sculptures. The coziness his clientele obviously enjoyed and the word-of-mouth, increasing flow of what was soon considered as one of Athen’s trendiest spots reflected on himself and made him happy. He’d almost cried when he first read in Athens Voice a piece about the Sunflower entitled ‘Out of this world! ’ in which he was mentioned as the ‘cool, teenage-looking proprietor with a divinely bizarre taste ’ (teenage-looking? He was thirty-one!) But it was true – the place worked its magic, making him young again, making him loved. Like rain on his parched heart, the sight of the crowd gathering at night to dance and drink and talk and laugh, on his rugs and couches and under the posters he’d chosen was to him an honest act of love.
To reciprocate this love he became extravagant, daring. He began to treat his morning customers to platefuls of huge, irregular chunks of chocolate, anxiously broken off of an assortment of chocolate bars; he organized theme parties and all-night film-fests in the store’s revamped basement (they were hugely popular; he’d never thought so many young people would care to see Cocteau’s or Kenneth Anger’s films); he’d even blindside the unsuspecting Zoì – who was also acting as DJ –, interrupting her Kylie Minogue or Cher or easy listening with snippets of the Romantics, a change that seemed to delight his receptive clientele of quasi-friends. He felt he had finally become a thread in the fabric of the world at large, albeit a scarcely visible and interwoven one – so that, despite the unchanging solitude in which he spent his few remaining hours (reading and listening to music and watching sitcoms and all-male porn with the voracity of the lonely), Nicos had managed to achieve some sort of quiet happiness. There seemed to be a purpose in his life after all – even if it was the humble destiny of coffeehouse proprietor. And then he found out there was no life to be lived at all.
An unexplained wave of midday heat has put a stop to the comings and goings of the square’s population – everyone looks too relaxed, as if preparing for a siesta.
Nicos cannot share even this simple inactivity; the same inner force, driven by thoughts of the disease – he can’t use the acronym, not even inwardly – causes him an undirected restlessness. He feels something momentous is about to happen, something very bad, but he can’t say what. (This is angst, of course; something bad is indeed on its way, and in spite of all the mind-blocking he knows very well what it is).
A girl who comes here almost every day – a young architect, who’s drawn several lovely sketches of the interiors of the Sunflower that Nicos has hung behind the bar – comes in and orders a capuccino and tries to engage him in small talk. He politely declines, claiming he can hear his cell phone ring (he can’t, it’s in his pocket, deactivated, but who’s to know with the infernal pop in the background?) He goes behind the bar to take this imaginary call; he feels guilty – she’s a nice girl really, she means well, perhaps he could confide in her. But this is nonsense; he can’t unload such a tremendous burden on the shoulders of what is practically a stranger. He has to bear it himself. To lessen the feelings of remorse (why is everything a cause for additional sadness these days?) he tells Zoì not to charge the girl anything, neither her friends, in case she’s expecting any. Other people have real friends, you know, he says to himself.
Then all of a sudden he can’t stand the pop anymore. He rushes to the computer, shuts down the mp3 list and fumbles in the CD drawer, looking for something soothing, calm; something funereal, like his mood. He locates a favourite disc: Sibelius Encore! At least it used to be a favourite; when things like music, melancholy or not, still mattered; when he could enjoy the schmalz and the gloom. He quickly inserts the CD in the drive – the silence in the air reverberates like a cry, the Sunflower is standing naked – and selects track no.3: Valse Triste. Cheesy. Mopey. Christ, don’t start crying, he thinks, steeling himself against the shiver brought on by the opening, sinuous melody. Don’t make an ass of yourself. He closes his eyes, the better to fight off the tears. He thinks about the last time he listened to this particular piece. It was about two months ago, around closing time; the Sunflower was empty save for a dozing Zoì and a group of drunk but curiously quiet boys. He didn’t know about the disease back then, that’s why he wanted to listen to Valse Triste, that’s why he could enjoy it: unhappiness can only be enjoyed when one is truly happy.
And he didn’t even know he was happy, he didn’t appreciate the small everyday joys, he took life for granted. Banal, and yet so very, very true.
He tries to simply listen to the music, emptying his mind. There’s something specific in this haunting piece of Finnish sorrow, a hidden image; something about the ghost of a cat. But it slips away, everything’s slipping away from him, where will all his dreams and thoughts and memories go? An ambitious tear (it won’t be kept back! it wants to be seen!) escapes the trembling eyelids of his left eye, slithers down the cheek and gets caught in the two-day beard, glistening like a tiny gem. Zoì, who has been watching him for some time is deeply distressed by this unwonted tearfulness. She comes to him without a sound and hugs him. He flinches, then surrenders, keeping his eyes closed, biting his lip to hold back the sobs that are welling up like vomit.
There, there, she says, stroking his back. It’s this depressing music. It’s my fault, I should have thrown it all away. Ugh! It’s like a funeral! (But deep down, does she know? Does she suspect how close she is to the truth?)
Nicos sits on the waiting room couch reading Marie Claire. It’s more of a living room, really. His analyst, sixty years old and vastly educated, treats his patients at his home, an old two-storey house in Pangráti, smothered in unkempt ivy. There’s a sign on the front door: a cartoon of a rabid dog with sharp fangs and foaming mouth. Chien lunatique, it reads underneath; Dr. Siòn specialized in Paris. Absurdly, he has no dog, mad or otherwise. Whether the sign was meant to deter possible burglars or as an in-joke on the patients, nobody knows. Nicos has never asked him; the zaniness of shrinks knows no limits. The magazine he’s leafing through is another example. It’s not there for the women patients – it’s the doctor’s reading pastime. Thrown pell-mell on the round coffee table one can find books by Perec, Bernhardt and Blanchot, as well as dozens of issues of Cosmopolitan and Vogue; also, leather-bound volumes of what could be the Torah or the Kabbalah (Dr. Siòn is, depending on his mood and the condition of his health, a meek agnostic, a bitter atheist, a guilty, lapsed Jew or a passionate scholar of the Judaica). When he’s not studying the Scriptures or reading psychiatry-related texts, the doctor pores over heavy literature and fashion magazines.
The glossy pages are filled with ads, showing spectacular women and men. Nicos pauses at the latter. Such beauty, he muses. Unimaginable. And yet these creamy or caramel boys with their unreal faces do exist; their faces are real, and someone kisses them at night and upon waking in the morning. Some young girl, probably, as tall as they if not taller and weighing close to nothing; the post-Moss skeletons, he adds with venom. (But maybe they are equally beautiful to them. Or maybe they aren’t girls at all – no, that’s too painful a thought. Better stick with the anorexic bimbos). He touches a lock of golden hair, lets the fingertip caress the two-dimensional cheekbone, the firm chest, the nipple. This is as close as he’s ever got to touching another man. Now his life will be closed like a magazine, thrown away with the garbage. He looks at his watch. I really need to see my shrink, he thinks.
Dr. Siòn has been treating him over the past three years. Nicos first sought his help in the summer of 2002, when a bout of clinical depression had left him sleepless, unfed and unbathed for almost three weeks. He’d seen the doctor’s name in a Sunday paper’s special edition on psychoanalysis, and the witty article was accompanied by a small photo of the author. It was the face that had won Nicos’s trust: with his beady, piercing eyes distorted by the thick lenses of old-fashioned, tortoise-shell glasses and his bushy white beard, he looked like a cross between Sigmund Freud and Santa Claus.
For once, the looks weren’t deceiving; the short stout doctor was possessed in turns by a grandfatherly benevolence and an unbelievable cruelty, verging on the offensive. What do you expect, a man of thirty and still a virgin? he’d said when Nicos described the symptoms. Of course you are depressed! Go out and get laid – at least you can still get some without paying, which is less than can be said of yours truly! But the sharp sense of humour was only a tool to make him unwind, open up. Since then he has talked to Dr. Siòn about everything, never omitting even the tiniest embarrassing detail: he has related his dreams, the images that flash though his mind when he’s masturbating; he has revealed ridiculous fears (his horror of cockroaches) and vices he considers shameful and immoral – like his strictly imaginary encounters with very young boys, who he thought would be less threatening, more eager to experiment and to be touched. The doctor was a stark immoralist; he had consoled him with severity, as an old-school nanny would. That’s perfectly natural, stupid; everyone wants a piece of young ass! You think I don’t see the little whores on the street, wiggling their juicy bums like pros? It was immensely liberating, this abuse. And the fluoxetine had helped.
The analyst was equally harsh when Nicos had first told him about the blood test. He was nearly weeping, describing in a broken voice the sole sexual interaction of his life, saying again and again, Why me? Why this curse? The doctor had interrupted his monologue with a rude exclamation of, Bullshit! Nicos froze. Then Dr. Siòn, lighting a cigarette, began to scold him: A curse! Are you for real? What makes you think you’re so special that it took a curse to bring you down? Get a grip, kid – everybody croaks sooner or later! What? You think I’ll be moved because you’re young and pretty and don’t deserve to die? No one deserves to die! Even Hitler had a right to live! Get a hold of yourself and face the facts. At least make sure you don’t die snivelling like a fool – it’s a good thing, death. A marvellous thing; invaluable. Personally, my balls itch with curiosity about what happens in the afterlife!
He’d also helped him, of course; he eventually let him cry and even stood up and held him, awkwardly, because of his rotund stomach and his short plump arms. He’d told Nicos to spoil himself, to do whatever came to his head – molest a boy, steal, kill. Whatever rocks your boat, kid; just do it. He had proposed the universal solace of religion: Come on, he’d said, you still have time to become a born-again Christian. That’s what religion is for, anyway – to give comfort to the dying; AIDS and cancer patients in particular. I remember once treating this great big homo; he was at the final stages, I had to make house calls. You wouldn’t believe this guy’s room – the place was a fucking temple: icons and prayer books everywhere, his mother counting beads and burning incense! I’m telling you, kid, give yourself to Christ; embrace the Lord Jesus. You never know, he might be queer – I mean, the guy never slept with a woman, it’s common knowledge.
Nicos, however, although appreciating the jokes of the well-meaning doctor, can’t follow his every piece of advice; as is the case with religion. He wishes he’d been more open to the Christian mumbo jumbo earlier in his life; it’s too late now. It would be like trying to collect interest from a bank in which you’ve never deposited any money. It wouldn’t work, it would fail like the prayers had when he was little and his mother told him to pray to God that his family and friends be safe from harm and God never replied and Nicos was pissed at his aloofness and stopped praying. Trickeries and shams, the lot of them; although at death’s door, he still pities the misguided people he sees on the TV flocking around churches at the Sunday Mass or climbing on all fours the steep road to the Temple of the Virgin Mary on the island of Tínos, to have their desperation alleviated. He wishes he could believe in the existence of a magnanimous God, who has a plan for every single one of his creatures. But he’s been dealt too haphazard a hand; this evil being done to him can’t be explained as part of any logical or just design. Others may see it that way; but they’re not the ones dying.
Ten minutes have passed; Nicos is growing uneasy. Later today he’s supposed to have dinner with his parents at their place. He dreads the occasion, even more because it’s right after his session with Dr. Siòn. It’s hard enough for an introvert like him to undress his soul in front of the doctor; meeting his parents right after makes him feel he won’t have time to dress his inner self, that they will see right through him.
Every now and then a guttural moan can be heard from inside the doctor’s study; it’s almost like an animal’s cry of pain, and is immediately followed by a softer, more human sob: Lobster Woman and her mother. Nicos dubbed her and always thinks of her as that: Lobster Woman – like a Marvel superhero. He knows it’s cruel but he doesn’t care; he allows himself the cruelty, it’s Dr. Siòn who insists that he spoil himself.
He’s met Lobster Woman before, upon leaving; she comes here irregularly, she can’t help it. The first time he saw her Nicos was so alarmed by her looks that he almost cried out; she was a living carcass, walking only with the support of her tearful mother; her skin was shiny and red like the shell of a boiled crustacean, and all muscle and fat in her bony arms and legs and death’s head seemed to have melted away. Her face was wet from tears, a long gob of snot was hanging from one nostril. Dr. Siòn had explained to the dumb-struck Nicos the young woman’s tragedy: she was suffering from a very rare and very aggressive type of lupus, an autoimmune disease; in layman’s terms, her body was cannibalizing itself, tissue after tissue. She looked old but was in fact in her late twenties; and as if the disease in itself wasn’t bad enough, she’d been a professional tennis player, her fiancé had broken up with her the moment she became ill, and she had had to move in with her mother, becoming helpless as a baby in the course of a few months. She’d been wanting to kill herself but could scarcely move her feet or hold a glass of water. She might die any day.
Initially, Nicos was moved by the young woman’s plight; he felt guilty; she hadn’t had unprotected sex with a hooker; who was there to blame in her case?
But pity soon receded and an amused curiosity took over. Now he feels intrigued by Lobster Woman’s perseverance, her will to bear this living death. He doesn’t believe she really wants to kill herself: where there’s a will there’s a way, even if you can’t move a finger. She could throw herself onto the speeding cars while her mother helps her stand by the traffic light; she could get hold of a knife, even if it weighs a ton to her, raise it to her jugular and press with all her might. And yet she doesn’t – instead, here she is every other day, crying her eyes out and saying how unfair life is; she takes the anti-depressants and the sedatives Dr. Siòn prescribes.
So Lobster Woman must want to stay alive, relatively calm if not happy. Her determination has become the subject of an unspoken, childish rivalry with Nicos. Which one of us is more hopeless? he wonders malevolently. Who will die first?
I think it would be best if I killed myself, he says.
Dr. Siòn doesn’t seem to be paying attention; agitated and flushed, he’s rooting through the desk drawer. His hands are shaking, as if he hasn’t yet recovered from Lobster Woman’s session – a difficult profession, psychiatry; having to listen all day long to people who cry and scream and say they want to die.
Nicos starts to repeat his statement timidly, meaning it even less this time. I think it would be better –
Yeah, yeah, the doctor cuts him, I heard you the first time! Go on and kill yourself then, if you’re that stupid. You’ll be dead in a year anyway, so what’s the hurry? Goddamn Filipino whore! She’s either hiding my fucking cigarettes or she’s stealing them! I ought to strangle her! He closes the drawer with a bang, looks up at Nicos, panting, furious. You got any? I know it’s the ultra light shit all of you young idiots smoke, it’s like sucking a eunuch’s cock, but it’s better than nothing. Come on, make it quick – my brain’s withered worse than my balls from lack of nicotine!
Nicos briefly wonders if the Medical Association would condone such profanity. But then he’d feel much worse if Dr. Siòn treated him like a child all the time, trying to soothe him; it would make him want to cry. Whereas these outbursts stun him momentarily, they make him sit up and listen to what the doctor says, the same way a student does when rebuked by an angry teacher. He holds out his pack obediently and the doctor snatches it whole, pulling two cigarettes with his shaky fingers – one of them lands on the thick carpet, vanishing – and then throws the violated pack back at him as if intending it to hit him.
You don’t know anything about life, do you? he says, exhaling the smoke with a grimace; he always makes a show of how appalling Nicos’s cigarettes taste. Have you ever read Xenophon’s Anabasis ? he asks.
Nicos shakes his head.
I didn’t think so; if it’s not available on DVD, you kids never heard of it. Anyway – another puff of tastless smoke – it says about this guy Xenophon’s mission to save the lives of 10,000 Greek fools who’d gone with him to fight the Persian King Artaxerxes as mercenaries paid by his brother Cyrus. Excuse me! Am I boring you?
Nicos’s eyes have strayed unintentionally to the bookcase standing behind the doctor’s desk; so many books... He looks down immediately, short of blushing.
Now then, says the doctor. Xenophon; he was a rich kid like yourself; a disciple of Socrates – you think he fooled around with the boy? That would be something else you two had in common; well, at least you didn’t go to Iraq to fight for Bush; prudence is the greatest virtue, and please don’t start with that hooker story of yours, if I have to listen to it one more time I’ll kill myself. So, where were we? Ah, Xenophon, yes; a smart man, he must’ve been. Cause as soon as Cyrus was turned into shish kebab at the Battle of Cunaxa – isn’t it incredible that I can still remember the name when I can’t find my cigarettes? talk about Alzheimer’s! – so like I was saying, the minute Curys was dead, Xenophon found himself buried in lovely, deep shit; lost in the inland of a hostile empire he knew almost nothing about, having to lead 10,000 soldiers to what must have looked like certain death. To be responsible for the slaughtering of so many people... to lie awake at night thinking that this could be your last hour, that you’ll be torn to pieces and thrown to the dogs and your bones will remain dog-chewed and all in a foreign land, under a strange sky – and you’re telling me about your silly AIDS.
Nicos smiles at the admonishment; he’s become engrossed by the story.
The doctor takes one last drag and stubs the cigarette in the overflowing ashtray on his desk. Of course there’s a happy ending to the story, he says with a dismissive gesture. Quite a turn-off really; one would expect at least a bit of carnage – but then again if they’d been butchered there wouldn’t be a story in the first place. But no; he managed to save them, had them walking for five months – five months, can you believe it? Their calves must have been a sight for sore eyes; the perfect exercise! Then he falls silent for a moment, his fishbowl eyes growing distant, as distant as Persia must have felt to Xenophon. When he turns again to face him, the jocularity is gone; it is time for the moral of the story. The reason I’m telling you all this, apart from the fact that I’m a senile old fart who loves to show off, is that there’s a passage in Anabasis with which you could identify perhaps; or rather, with which you must identify.
Nicos waits with bated breath.
A very beautiful passage, it is – poetic, almost. They’ve camped out on a hillside for the night, and Xenophon is standing guard next to the sleeping soldiers. He can’t sleep, or he won’t; he’s thinking about the few hours left before daybreak, when they’ll have to move on or perhaps meet with a horrible death. What can one do when he’s only got a mere night to live? he wonders. What dreams and hopes and doings can he compress in such short a time? And then he realizes that precisely because he might be dead in a matter of hours, he must spend this time dreaming the grandest dreams possible, making the most ambitious plans; if there is one momentous thing he’s destined to do, now is the time to do it; and it’s this very thought that fills him with courage and strength and hope and cunning.
He stops, coughs, reaches and takes Nicos’s hand in his own. The touch of the smooth leathery palm is extremely comforting; Nicos can’t speak. He knows what the doctor’s getting at and he’s too ashamed to admit defeat.
Don’t worry about the insomnia and the panic attacks, says the doctor, almost whispering; there’s pills for all that. Try and focus on what’s really important in life, and have a go at it. Don’t surrender yet. These months can become more precious than a lifetime if you handle them with strength, with dignity. And if you don’t want sleeping pills then maybe it means you don’t need them – and I’m not saying this because I fear you might be tempted to hurt yourself. I don’t believe you want to kill yourself, Nico. Perhaps sleeplessness is the way your mind has of saying, I’m not giving up, I still have things to do and things to enjoy. So enjoy them, my dear boy, and don’t worry so much about whether there’s an afterlife or not; it’s an insult to life. Try to be happy, please try. Maybe this is not the end.
Nicos thinks, Or maybe it is.
He sits in the back seat of a cab, on his way to Kifissià. He avoids the passenger seat whenever he can; he fears the closeness, the possible familiarity.
Greek taxi drivers are often painfully talkative, but this one has scarcely exchanged two words with him, listening all the while with hushed concentration to the sportscast of some basketball game – at low volume, thank God. So Nicos is free to lose himself in thoughts, although the monotony of his mind is equally bothersome these days.
As the taxi devours mile after mile, he sits back, his head resting lightly on the window, transmitting the car’s vibration to his body like an external voice, a mindless drone. He looks at the people driving by or waiting by the crosswalks – longingly, envying them their health and their happiness. They may not look particularly happy but they’re just bluffing – of course they are happy, why shouldn’t they be? Those he sees who smile or laugh he actually hates, despises; he’d like to be able to knead his disease into a small black ball, a tangible black hole of the innards, and throw it at them: catch it and you die.
Exhausted by this absurd hatred he turns his gaze to the darkening sky, and at once another absurdity springs forth, so powerful he can almost see it happening: the twilight is suddenly aflame as an untoward comet penetrates the atmosphere brutally, a Vandal about to rape and destroy the civilized world; the blinding oncoming Armageddon can be seen from everywhere – even the penguins of Antarctica scatter in panic, screeching and diving into the icy waters to be saved; but in the end no one is saved; the comet collides with the Earth, dislodging it from its orbit; like billiard balls struck by an invisible, gigantic cue, the other planets lose their balance and the solar system comes apart with a silent explosion, disturbing the galaxy’s magnetic field, causing more imbalances, more collisions; the black void cannot damp the chain of fatal oscillations, the galaxies become tumbling dominoes; and so, in what may be seconds or eons (for nothing’s left intact by then, nothing by which to measure space or time) the whole ingenious Creation, the intricate orderly chaos, is gone, humans and faraway aliens – friendly or hostile, we will never know – erased, all of them deader than death.
Nicos closes his eyes, savouring the bleak fantasy. What good is extermination without a little company?
It is perverse to think such evil thoughts while on his way to his parents’ home – for the villa in Kifissià is a place filled with love; a genuine love, free of pretenses, hopes and expectations; love for the sake of love.
They’re the rarest of beasts, his mother and father. Despite their wealth, they’re nothing like their north-suburbs neighbours: they have not an iota of snobbishness; they never show off, consciously avoiding the social gatherings and glittering galas of their peers, favouring private trips to various destinations over the luxurious resorts of everybody who’s anybody – keeping themselves to themselves, to enjoy their love.
Nicos grew up in what was perhaps the single household in Kifissià who didn’t employ servants, cooks, gardeners, chauffeurs or cleaning ladies. His mother did the cooking and the cleaning and his father tended the garden and the repairs and drove them around in their old Citroën DS. This wasn’t done out of a sense of mutual servility, nor was it the result of his parents’ stinginess; they lived that way simply because they themselves abounded with love and wanted to pass it on, to please one another and to create a loving family.
To an outsider this might sound positively corny, sickly sweet. But Nicos, knowing no other reality – except the one which hurt him later on, the darkness that has lead him to this hell – has learned to appreciate this purity of heart. He was and still is benignly jealous of his parents’ devotion to each other, and at times he’s even felt outright indignation towards them: how could they be so happy when he was miserable? How could they bathe in their love, always warm and soothing like the waters of a hot spring when he had to fight night and day with his unspoken curse? If they were more like the rest of the kids’ folks, he used to think at high school, if they were arguing and resentful, if they’d been divorced and he had spent the crucial formative years of childhood caught in the mayhem of a diseased family, maybe then he would have someone or something to blame. As it was, it was all his fault – it was invincible fate.
He doesn’t resent them their good fortune anymore; if anything, imbued with the bittersweet magnanimity of the dying, he’s glad for them, relieved that they will at least have a shoulder to cry on, a warm embrace at night. They seem like elves to him, this withered, infatuated couple; like creatures out of a fairy tale, who were meant to love each other and so overcame any obstacle, to be together forever. He knows their story by heart, he loved to hear it when he was little – it was his own private thriller, played in his mind ad infinitum to cherish the favourite scenes.
He still retells the tale to himself; it brings him solace.
The year is 1972. The Colonels’ junta have been spreading their poisonous roots in Greece for half a decade. Although not in a state of utter terror, the people are leading timid lives, fearful of the dictatorship’s ever-present power: many are those who have been abducted, imprisoned, exiled and tortured. The young, by nature hostile to oppression, have been secretly plotting to overthrow this regime of pompous fools who are destroying their country: an underground network is growing steadily in the student community; children of the civil war all of them, they’re sick and tired of seeing their repeatedly ravaged motherland suffer from unreasonable, self-consuming hatred. Their actions are supported by numerous agitators living abroad, both Greek and foreign. Rallies are organized and quelled; banished authors and composers write inflammatory songs which resound in the basements of secret meetings, adding to the young people’s burning desire for freedom. Word has it that the government’s power is waning; the oppressors’ proclaimed optimism is a mere façade. Victory – which will eventually come in two years’ time – feels excruciatingly near.
However, in the midst of all this righteous turmoil building up in Athens, there are two young persons to whom the rebels’ cause is an utter irrelevancy; despite its individualistic nature, their sorrow is equally intense with that of the oppressed Greeks.
He is twenty-two and she twenty; they are students at the School of Fine Arts – he wants to be a sculptor and she a painter. Although quite young, they are both of independent means (His father is a much-respected cartoonist, widowed son-in-law of a button industry owner. She hails from Thessaloníki, and both her parents are successful lawyers). They are only children – a thing quite rare in ’70s Greece – and thus rather spoiled and free to do as they wish. Their relationship, going on to two years, is not a secret (another rarity): dinners and visits have been exchanged; the graceful, leftist northerners – in discreet but constant surveillance by the secret police – have even travelled to Athens, staying at the eminent widower’s mansion, and have expressed their delight at their daughter’s choice of future spouse (such a lovely young man) and at her father-in-law’s hospitality (and the father is an absolute darling – he actually blushed when I told him how much I adore his work ). It is a thing as certain as the rising and the setting of the sun that sooner or later these two young lovebirds will be married – although both families share little respect for the clergy or for religious morality in general – and then they will be free to live their life, in the double studio they’ve been dreaming about, where they’ll create masterpieces during breaks from their insatiable lovemaking.
There’s just one thorn to bear in mind while embracing this dreamy rose of bliss; and a very sharp thorn it is: a couple of months after graduation the boy will be drafted; he’ll have to serve his country (or the parody that it’s become) for 28 months – an eternity by the standards of one so young and so in love. And it’s not just the pain of separation; for she would gladly weave her Penelope’s shroud waiting for him, visiting whenever possible and meeting him at their love nest, a tiny house at the foot of the Acropolis, to bathe him and love him and sleep in his arms. This they might bear. But his father is considered politically suspect, even though his latest cartoons have been deliberately neutral; he’s one of the many members of the artistic community who have been wrongly victimized – whoever’s not expressly working for the junta is a subversive and an enemy of the state. Her parents’ dubious past will also be taken into consideration (they have defended many left-wing cases in court, and her grandfather, a farmer living on the outskirts of Thessaloníki, had been a guerrilla fighter for the Liberation Front during the second World War). So it is more than likely that her beloved will suffer greatly during his two-and-a-half years of service; he will be humiliated for his bookishness by brutes and ignoramuses, he will be forced to scrub toilets and walk on his knees and go days at a time without a proper meal and bath; he will be sent to the outermost reaches of the country, to the wilderness and to secluded barren islets, the bête noire of the military persecution syndrome, his every move and word subject to scrutiny and willful distortion. And all the while they’ll be living with the fear that the boiling cauldron of political instability may overflow; a war might break out and she might lose him forever. He mustn’t go. He can’t go.
The situation asks for desperate measures, and the two families conspire against the army threat: the young couple make their way stealthily to Corfu, where they board a ship sailing under an Italian flag of convenience, property of a shipowner who is the boy’s late mother’s second cousin. Hiding in the hold among crates of kumquat and almond nougat – on which they gorge themselves – they travel to Italy and thence to France and then Paris, where most of the Greek subversives have fled to. Staying as guests with various friends and acquaintances, they’ll spend two fantastic years in the French metropolis, doing odd jobs, taking part in rallies and dreaming passionately of coming home. Part of these dreams will materialize inside the girl’s womb – on September 2 1974, the day of their return, she’ll be seven months pregnant.
Things aren’t so easy for the bereft parents. At first they all try to spread an agreed fabrication: the young devils have eloped because they were opposed to their marriage; God knows where they’ve gone to, and God only cares – good riddance to bad rubbish. But the police aren’t fooled for long. When a few months have passed and neither of the two has set foot in the University they become extremely suspicious; the boy’s dodging the draft is the last straw; the parents are dragged to the police headquarters and interrogated brutally. All three rage with faked indignation. How dare they accuse them of plotting with the other’s despicable family? It’s that old fool! shouts the girl’s mother. He destroyed his boy and now he wants to destroy us too! Damn that Commie whore and her limp-dick husband! roars the stately widower. It’s her fault, she and that scheming cunt of a daughter want to tarnish my good name and reputation! The authorities remain unconvinced. The parents are brought to trial all together, and the abusive theatricals are resumed in the courthouse; the girl’s mother even faints, quite convincingly. But the judge isn’t moved: unless they are willing to sign a confession here and now, repudiating all of their children’s actions and stating that they don’t have and never had and never will have any interaction whatsoever with the depraved communists and other enemies of the April Revolution, they are to be sent to prison camps immediately and indefinitely. The girl’s father and his wife, stern-faced, sign the shameful declaration; but the boy’s father is adamant; he doesn’t even dignify the paper with a glance. I will not betray my son, he says, secretly sympathizing with the girl’s parents and holding them no grudge. He knows someone has to take care of things, send money, communicate; it might as well be them, they’re younger and more capable. He is promptly manacled and shipped to the island of Áyios Efstrátios. He will remain there for a year and a half, sunbathing and drawing caricatures of characters in Balzac’s Comédie Humaine, or of as much of it as he can remember. While Nicos is growing up, his grandfather will often regale him with stories about his place of exile, inventing monster-guards and mermaids imprisoned in huge tanks of seawater, and always mentioning the day when he read, with tears in his eyes, the letter from his maternal grandmother saying that little Nicolìs was on his way.
The dinner has been typically delicious. Oblivious to the dangers of hypertension, high blood sugar and arteriosclerosis, Nicos’s parents, though nearing sixty, continue to eat like a king, enjoying their every meal as though it were their last. Today his mother had prepared a lethal moussaka, (the aubergines deep-fried in golden olive oil, the minced meat a triple wonder of pork, beef and lamb, the béchamel sauce thick with melted feta) and for dessert they had her divine gâteau au chocolat, the taste of which the celibate Nicos privately considers superior to any actual orgasm. Breathing with considerable difficulty after a second helping of gâteau, he wonders whether it’s possible that AIDS can be cured by overeating, the retrovirus drowned in a river of fatty acids. One can only hope... He’ll certainly miss his mother’s cooking.
The small talk during these family dinners is nothing like the usual Greek Inquisition; his parents never probe him with questions, they never nag or bore or tire him. Not once has he been asked the dreaded motherly question, the one concerning nice girls and imminent marriages and flocks of grandchildren; not once has his father, himself a successful antique dealer, competed with him, talking shop or making remarks about profits. There’s always an air of unforced conviviality, in which Nicos has long been treated as a younger adult rather than a child – they talk about books, and films, and plays, about trips and shopping, about politics and how pathetic television and newspapers have become. Although they’d never dream to interrogate their son about his love life (they’ve never even hinted at it), the general feeling is so civilized that Nicos has often thought that he could easily broach the awkward subject himself; he suspects they’ve already figured out the truth, but they are either too discreet to pursue the matter further or too indifferent: who their child has sex with does not concern them. He’s been on the brink of telling them ever since he was convinced of his inclination. Yet somehow this all-accepting love of theirs made them seem distant, unaffected. A little lower-middle class mentality might help; the threat of screaming and crying that most of his classmates faced at every transgression. What’s the point of announcing something momentous to people who will only smile and wish you luck with whatever you choose to do? It would be like coming out to the prime minister during a social gathering. Nicos believes he could even mention the disease, and still they wouldn’t react violently; but it’s too late, he’s too afraid of hurting them – not as parents but as a happy couple; people in love always arouse an instinct to protect them.
Immediately after dinner – his mother isn’t the guilt-ridden hausfrau, and always leaves the dishes unwashed till the next day – they retire to the living room, where an enormous sofa bed is gaping with purple velvet lips and sheets and pillows; they like to fall asleep watching DVDs they order fanatically from numerous Web sites – series, mostly. Right now they’re obsessed with the baffling cases Dr. Gil Grissom and his team of Crime Scene Investigators have to puzzle out. Nicos watches as they lie snugly under the coverlet, his father searching for the remote, his mother changing the tired lenses with her butterfly-shaped glasses. It’s not that they ignore him: he’s equally free to roam the house or to sit with them and enjoy the adventurous deaths that befall the people of Las Vegas. But it’s a bit sad, a man his thirties, watching TV with his parents; he doesn’t want to spoil the pretty picture, nor is he particularly willing to see the carving up of corpses – it’s too close to reality. Also, he doesn’t want to get too close to them; the usual peck on the cheek his mother always gives him he guesses was okay, but he feels a slight unease about the fact that he has used their cutlery and drunk from their glasses (and has been doing so for a while) without informing them; he knows he’s being ridiculous, there’s absolutely no risk, but still.
As he is climbing the stairs to his room, he turns and takes another look: his mother has snuggled up to his father and they’re both watching CSI with hungry eyes, munching unconsciously on dried figs from a bowl that rests on their laps. How lucky they have been, he thinks. This is true happiness: watching a cop show in the arms of your white-haired better half. If only he could live this scene himself; if only there was a way to crawl unnoticed and lie between them, secure in their love like the embryon they had once created. If he could turn back time.
Nicos’s old room is the only part of his parents’ house that unintentionally complies with the aesthetics of the petit bourgeois: in the thirteen years he has been living on his own it has remained unchanged: a tenderly preserved time capsule of his childhood and adolescence, its every detail intact, as though he might, upon entering, assume not just his older life and age but the pastimes as well.
He doesn’t begrudge them this harmless shrine; if anything, it eases the pain – like a drug, a spell; he feels secure in his complete knowledge of every nook and cranny; he believes he could find with eyes closed the lilac folder (hidden under six years’ worth of English papers at the bottom of the desk’s third drawer) containing his meagre stash of softcore porn; he knows without having to touch it that the underside of the single bed is a multicoloured mass of hardened ancient pieces of bubblegum – madly masticated during the long nights he’d spent reading Stephen King’s latest novel – which he took out to rest his numb jaws and then forgot to remove. Thanks to his parents’ respect (or unspoken sentimentality) this room has remained such a faithful picture of his younger self, that if a perfect stranger saw it he could visualize the teenage Nicos to a T.
Sitting on his old bed, he goes through his record collection. How much place music used to take, he thinks. (He ought to take them with him, his old LPs; but he hasn’t a record player, and buying one and cleaning the vinyls and listening to them will take too much time; time has become too precious). There is a light coating of dust on the lurid Madonna and Alphaville jackets; it’s simply the result of his mother’s laid-back housework – he wouldn’t have dusted them either. However, prompted by an inner dramatization quite frequent these days, he views the furry grey motes as an allegory of his disappearing life, of untouchable youth. I was so safe when I was buying these records, he reflects, running his fingers on the glossy covers; without a care in the world. Suddenly, everything around him seems to be pointing to this irretrievable past, these thirteen years (an unlucky number) during which he’s managed to move on – but towards what? The things in this room – the books, the toys, the board games – are mementos of a struggle: the struggle of Greece, flailing on the threshold of a European identity, and of his own, as he fought the curse that made him ogle and dream about boys (smooth young athletic golden idols). Now, drowned in the flood of depression, he feels as if he’s betrayed his very country by having failed so miserably. The old possessions sneer; he puts down the records and lies on his back with closed eyes.
The last thing he sees before he dozes off, owing to a combination of acute indigestion and bitter remorse, is a picture frame resting on the edge of the bookshelf: a photo of his great-grandfather, about whom he briefly dreams.
It is strange that of all people it should be his mother’s grandfather that visits him in his sleep; he hardly knew the man – a sullen widower in his late seventies when Nicos was born, living alone in a remote wooden cottage on Hortiátis, the mountain rising above Thessaloníki. His main interactions limited to the animals he kept in his yard, he was a man of few words – yet for this exact reason it was usually words that stuck. In his half-slumber, Nicos feels a deep shame: what would his great-grandpa think if he found out he was gay? He can see the wizened face, the piercing eyes under an eagle’s nest of eyebrows, the toothless mouth and the nicotine-stained lips – all of them glowing with the war paint of anger and disgust, as if he’s ready to strike this sissy, this queer, this faggot. Then, his lips unmoving like a ventriloquist’s, his great-grandfather says something Nicos probably never heard him say (it’s not possible, he wouldn’t remember it; it was probably an expression his daughter also used, passing it on to Nicos’s mother): They’ll be planting you, boy. It’s slang for burial, to plant someone, though almost obsolete. You don’t hear people say this anymore (despite the accuracy; for indeed corpses are planted, like seeds; the putrid flesh melts away and flowers and weeds grow on the grave).
But Nicos can’t think that far, he can’t appreciate the thought of his own body turning into compost. What he feels is the unspeakable panic of nightmares; he wants to scream but he can’t, he must run but his legs are gone. And all the while his great-grandfather is inching towards him with this mask of frozen burning hatred on his face. He’s going to grab him, wrestle him to the ground, and then he’ll pick up his shovel and he’ll plant him.
He wakes up with a jump, panting, his hands trying to wipe the earth that makes his eyes sting; his face feels moist – he’s been crying in his sleep. He looks at the Cheshire Cat clock on the opposite wall; he’s only been asleep for a couple of minutes. How much terror can the mind create in so little time? And why? (It is a terrified mind, that’s why).
He decides to have a smoke and wait for the tears to dry, the shaking to subside. Voices and sounds from the macabre quests of the Vegas Investigators still reach him faintly; he mustn’t fall apart in front of his parents. Get a grip, he says to himself.
Then something curious happens: he realizes he’s forgotten where the ashtray used to be. Perhaps his mother took it downstairs – they’re heavy smokers both of them. But he doesn’t want to go downstairs, not yet. The burning cigarette hanging from his lips, he starts to go through the desk drawers; his hands touch unfamiliar stuff, smooth pencil-holders, dried-up Magic Markers, knickknacks. But the blue earthenware ashtray he remembers so well is nowhere to be found.
In sudden desperation – the burnt cigarette end hangs like a tiny, limp penis; It’ll fall off and start a fire, he thinks, unreasonably – he opens the closet on the right, the one that used to hold his coats and shoes. Why would his mother hide the ashtray in the back of a closet he naturally can’t say. By now he’s shaking again, his hand, outstretched, fumbles amongst dark forgotten clothes; the fatal piece of ash has broken off and fallen on the carpet – his left knee has made of it a tiny black smear. His fingers blindly wrap themselves around something soft and furry; he presses and the thing utters a muted cry; Nicos recoils, alarmed (did I just touch a rat?) and then he remembers. He puts out the cigarette by stubbing in on the sole of his shoe, reaches once more inside the closet, and brings out Hector’s sheep.
It’s his tenth birthday, and to celebrate the grand occasion his parents have been plotting for over a week. Nicos has come upon them talking in a hush-hush voice on the phone, winking at each other, and raising their eyebrows as if they couldn’t see whatever reason he had to suspect them. Yet little Nicos knows, and the knowledge makes the anticipation doubly sweet. He’s got the best parents in the whole wide world.
The doorbell rings and his father rushes to the door with an expression of glee. Nicos is doing his homework and doesn’t come downstairs – he wants to show he’s such a good boy that he won’t shirk homework, not once, not even on his birthday; also, he’s enjoying every single sound: the strange men’s voices at the doorstep, their huffing as they carry something heavy inside. The suspense is killing him.
And then the door closes and his father opens the heavy something the strange men have brought (it sounds like wood, it must be a crate, oh God this must be it) and a sharp bark suddenly echoes through the hallway, followed by a hurried soft scuttering. Finally Nicos can’t take it anymore; he ditches the capitals of the European Economic Community and runs to meet his new best friend. He’s so happy he could die.
A year has passed and Hector, his beloved spotted Great Dane, has all of a sudden fallen ill. He hasn’t eaten for two days, he barely makes it to the garden when nature calls, and the only response to his master’s pleadings is a pained soft groaning.
Nicos is terribly upset; he thinks he would kill himself if something happened to Hector, and says so. His mother calls the vet and his father tries to calm him down. It’s nothing serious, he says. Dogs like Hector tend to get sick more easily because they’re purebred. He’s like the princes and the princesses – constantly marrying relatives to preserve their blue blood, they end up being sickly all the time. But Hector won’t be like this forever? asks Nicos, his voice breaking. No, silly, of course he won’t, his father says, ruffling his hair. He’s not a prince, is he? And Nicos snivels once and then he laughs, because he thinks how silly Hector would look all dressed-up like a prince, with a crown on his big potato head and his paws getting caught in the cloak.
They all drive together to the vet’s, Nicos sitting in the back and stroking Hector’s head and his back. The belly he avoids; the poor guy flinches and growls at the slightest touch. His mother is singing to the radio, to cheer everybody up.
They wait outside while the doctor examines Hector (I’m sure it’s nothing, he’s just a bit under the weather, his father had said; but didn’t look like he meant it). There’s a pet store next door, and his mother takes him there, to buy his buddy a get-well present. Nicos sees the little sheep and it’s love at first sight: it’s a fuzzy white plump adorable creature, with huge, surprised cartoony eyes, short stout black legs and tail, and a red-and-black snout; depending on how hard you squeeze it, it bleats – meekly or loudly or furiously. The little doggie will have tons of fun playing with it, the saleswoman assures them; yet Nicos, holding the adorable Whitey (it’s a boy) in his arms, is doubtful; he’s not so sure he’d enjoy watching Hector drool on Whitey and pounce on him and tear him to shreds with his powerful jaws. He’d rather keep Whitey for himself. But as they walk back to the veterinary clinic he changes his mind, angry at his own selfishness; if sacrificing Whitey guarantees Hector’s speedy recovery, this means the opposite must also be true – by holding onto the sheep he’s jinxing Hector, as if he wishes he were dead. It’s a terrible thought; Nicos closes his eyes and promises that he’ll give Hector the sheep – it’s only a toy, it’s not alive; he can’t wait to see him wag his clumsy tail when he presents him with Whitey.
But it’s already too late; Hector has been jinxed. The moment he sees his father’s ashen face he can tell. The doctor had come out moments before, telling him that Hector’s condition was critical, that in fact he’d have to operate immediately; he consented, of course. Nicos isn’t angry with him, he would have done the same – he would have done anything to keep Hector alive. The tears he’s shedding are furious tears, he rages at himself and at the stupid sheep which he’s still hugging, instinctively, because he can’t hug Hector.
His best friend will die during surgery; he’ll never get to give him a last hug. Whitey loses his name, he becomes the sheep again and then not even that – it’s too painful a reminder, and when Nicos falls asleep, exhausted from crying, his mother hides it in the back of the closet, behind a pair of old galoshes.
It’s half past one and the Sunflower is bursting with people. Tomorrow it’s Friday but Greeks live in a state of perpetual Saturday – the night following a tiring day and before another workday poses no threat to them: the word night, nýchta, is feminine, and thus the hours of darkness can be spent in nonchalance and indulgence, as one might treat a very predictable, pleasing mistress; it is the masculine sun that they must face as an enemy in the morning, still glazed from the nocturnal excesses yet all the same willing to repeat them once the faithful mistress sheds before their eyes her starry veil of dusk.
Nicos sits at the bar, drinking his fourth Tanqueray and tonic and grinning like a fool. It pleases him immensely, this pandemonium of the young he’s helped create. Tonight the Sunflower shakes with the selections of a guest DJ, a skeletal man of indeterminate age, so heavily pierced that Nicos is certain he must be in constant pain. It’s not music really, the stuff he’s playing – just the sort of maddening hum&beat that’s usually a prelude to pills. For a moment he wonders whether any of his ecstatic clientele are actually doped up on something; the Greek police aren’t very tolerant when it comes to substances other than alcohol. But he decides he doesn’t care. Let the kids have their fun, he thinks, like a benevolent old uncle. He enjoys their dancing and their shouting, the gin has gone to his head, cool and tight he is. Wonderful music.
Distrustful as always towards the bartenders and the waitresses – she believes they’re giving their friends free drinks – and equally suspicious of the customers (I’m telling you, they’re pinching all the good ashtrays! ) Zoì pushes her way through the crowd, running here and there, panting like an overweight bloodhound. He catches her eye and signals that everything’s okay, she can take a break, go home if she’s tired. Zoì will have none of that (They’re robbing you blind – you are a good man, Nico, but deep down you’re a rich kid, and all rich kids are dumb ). He feels such a surge of love for sweet plump Zoì, who calls him a dumb rich kid and stays up all night getting bags and sore feet so that he won’t be deprived of a 4-euro ashtray. If he wasn’t so sure that he’d collapse on the dancefloor and be trampled to death by his own customers he’d go after her and scoop her like a doll and hug and hug her.
How weird it is, this sudden euphoria, at the end of a day spent almost entirely in the blackest mood; he hasn’t once thought of his death in the past couple of hours. Astonishing. Of course he realizes it is strictly due to the booze; he’s always been a happy drunk. But even so, even in this state of fuzziness he can’t help marveling at his being’s duality; it’s a conundrum: the sickness in his body has caused the mind to become sick with dread; yet the body still continues to function – he can eat, drink and smoke –, it has resumed its habitual unthinking simplicity, as if he isn’t really sick, as if he’s meant to live forever; so now the misery depends solely on the mind, which, though itself a part of the same elaborate construction, stands apart, a hostile landlord of the body’s consciousness, presiding over every second of his time so that he’ll spend it in utter desolation. Not tonight, though; tonight he has silenced it, conked it with gin. Maybe it won’t be so bad after all if I’m given enough morphine, he thinks; if I’m not all there. He wishes he had some pot back home. It’s been a while, and he’d like to prolong this ersatz happiness. Alas, his dealer will be spending the winter in Crete – again the problem of time.
Things have sobered up considerably by three-thirty, and so has Nicos. The DJ has left but the music hasn’t – his eardrums still vibrate, creating a high-pitched whine. The remaining barflies have huddled together in the lower half of the Sunflower, where the sofas are, and the rugs, and the cushions; nursing unnecessary drinks they whisper to each other and giggle softly and some of them, hidden or simply not caring, make out ferociously. Nicos hasn’t the heart nor the physical strength to tell Zoì to tell them they’re closing; also he doesn’t want to wake her up – for she too has succumbed to the general fatigue, half-snoring, her head resting on the till, her hand clutching unconsciously one of the priceless ashtrays with the fingers thrust among the butts. I hope they’re not still burning, he thinks. Maybe he really ought to tell her to go, take her to the taxi stand around the corner. But he doesn’t have the energy required for such heroics. His mood has fallen rapidly, within seconds, like a heavy solid thing, landing on his heart with a sickening thud. The gin has worn off, and he knows that if he drinks any more there will be hell to pay tomorrow (sore dry mouth, blinding headache, juniper-smelling piss). He wants to go home – so badly, that if he had the proverbial three-wishes jinni, he would first demand that he be teleported home and only then to be cured from the virus.
And then someone comes into the Sunflower and Nicos turns around and his mood sinks even deeper (where to? it must have already reached his spleen, his intestine, his unused genitalia).
Enter Alexis and boyfriend.
If Nicos was a practicing homosexual, Alexis would be his closest friend; they would go shopping together and talk on the phone and have drinks at the gay bars in Gázi; being both in their early thirties, they would have shared by now innumerable embarrassing or splendid or heartbreaking stories of romance and casual sex, laughing their heads off, bringing each other comfort.
As it is, Alexis is simply a steady customer, sharing with him a somewhat lukewarm faux closeness. Nicos’s abstinence, though unmentioned, permeates their every conversation like a forbidding smell: feeling that his friend would have nothing to add and thus feel left out, inept, Alexis never talks much about his private life; this makes it even harder for Nicos to ask him any pertinent questions, despite his burning curiosity about Alexis’s evidently vigorous sex life – a vicious cycle. They both mean well by their silence. It doesn’t mean that they cannot discuss any unrelated topic, nor are their whole lives dominated by the vitality or the sloth of their respective libidos; it’s just that any sort of interaction between adult strangers has to contain at least a vestige of the sexual; an infinitesimal attraction, a reason to love and to care and to long for each other’s company. And when one’s soul seems as frigid as Nicos’s, devoid of any hope for or sort of intercourse, people can’t help feeling that he’s in fact a person ill at ease in the warm climates of friendship.
Of course, some tidbits of intimacy have managed to squeeze through the gaps in Alexis’s voluble nature: over the two years they’ve known each other, Nicos has avidly consumed fragments of stories about internet hook-ups gone awry, doomed weekend romances, or the Sexual Underworld of Berlin; he has wondered at Alexis’s persistence and inwardly criticized and envied him for his recklessness (he almost faints from fear and desire at the thought of chatting with a perfect stranger and then asking him over for sex; he thinks he’d end up murdered, yet at the same time knows he’s being prudish and irrational). He would love to be Alexis, if only for one night.
The news of the disease coincided with another breach in their anemic bond: five weeks ago, Alexis, surfing the Net, came upon Nassos, the love of his life – a twenty-five year-old law student, well-read and emotionally mature and looking for a serious relationship and handsomer than the Devil. When he introduced them Nicos had felt a prick of jealousy (no, it wasn’t a prick; it was a nine-inch nail driven through his heart, twisted, wrenched). Since then, apart from having learnt that his earthly lot has expired, he’s also had the chance of observing the newlyweds in various heart-nailing occasions: crossing the square holding hands – they are both very emancipated –, drinking to each other’s health, their eyes locked in a gaze of deepest affection, and even, once, kissing and cuddling on one of the sofas (Disgraceful, Zoì had said, fuming. What would their poor mothers think if they saw them like that? But it was four in the morning and the Sunflower was empty. He’d sat watching them the whole time, a depressing peep-show, the nadir of his pathetic life).
We won’t be staying long, says Alexis now, sitting next to him. Just for a quick nightcap. I won’t be staying long either, thinks Nicos, in bitter response.
Nassos, or the devil’s advocate as he privately calls him – a huge unfairness; he’s a sweet kid; just too sweet – towers over his lover, beautiful as an obsidian statue: tall and slender, swarthy and unshaved, jet-black hair and jet-black eyes. Even if he was never meant to possess such a trophy, Nicos would kill to have his looks (his own eyes are hazel, a dime a dozen). He doesn’t kiss him on the cheek like Alexis does; instead, he shakes his hand with an awkward lopsided boyish edible smile. For a few seconds the tingling of his touch lingers on Nicos’s palm, a craving for the young attorney’s long, lovely fingers. He doesn’t want to stare but he’s weak from drunkenness and years of starvation. How he would love to be alone with Nassos and – and what? He’s only seen the act performed by German, Hungarian or American professionals. And isn’t Alexis saying something?
What’s the matter, love? You look horrible. Have you been drinking again?
I do own a bar, you know.
Come on, Nicoláki boy; tell me what’s wrong. It’s not good for you, you know. You might be a borderline alcoholic and not even know it.
(I’m a borderline corpse, he wants to tell him. Nothing’s good for me anymore). What? What is it? You can tell me. Is it your folks? They’re okay?
(My folks – of course; nothing could ever happen to me, good or bad; I don’t fuck, therefore I don’t exist).
Suit yourself; but you know I’m always there for you if you need someone to talk to. Plus, – this added in a whisper, so that Nassos won’t hear – I think it’s time we found you a nice piece of juicy boyish ass. You need to get laid, love; big time.
(Funny that you should mention it; did you know I can kill someone by getting laid? Would you like that someone to be your precious little lawyer? Would you like me to spill my guts and fuck up your mood for weeks? Although I’m sure you two will have a riot – think about that, the poor fuck has AIDS and he’s still a virgin!)
To change the subject and to stifle this nauseating resentment, he asks, How’s things at school? Alexis teaches math at a posh suburban high school.
Oh, fine, fine – you know how it is; I have to work my ass off for twelve hundred a month to kids with cell phones I could never afford.
Always bitching about their fucking cell phones! You’d rather be working at some public dump and have young punks call you faggot to your face?
Alexis flinches. What’s the matter with you?
(a convenient lie, a convenient lie)
Nothing; it’s just – I was at my parents’ for dinner and I was looking through some old stuff... and I found this toy I had bought for my dog.
You had a dog? You never told me.
(There’s lots of things I never told you). Yeah, I did – when I was little. His name was Hector. He died.
Aw, poor thing... And you’re sad because of your dead doggie?
He wasn’t a doggie. He was a Great Dane the size of your boyfriend.
Ouch! Sorry... What did he die of?
Cancer or something – I don’t know. (But I can tell you what I will die of).
Well – shit happens.
(But why to me? Why always to me?)
He begins to sob, loudly, ridiculously; Zoì wakes up at once, looks around, alarmed, then goes around the bar and hugs him. For a couple of horrifying seconds, Nicos fears that he’s about to get a group hug. But Alexis and Nassos stand back, in shock, secure in their love.
Nicos wakes up and finds himself sprawled on the sofa; his head is heavy, his nose stuffy with tears. He hears Zoì closing up; she must have carried him over here and let him sleep it off. Yet some things you just can’t sleep off.
It’s almost five in the morning; the sky is indigo, pregnant with the new day. The couch is the first on the lower half of the Sunflower, and above him there’s a long narrow window, at street level. As he looks, a pair of legs appear and block the view of the sky; someone is standing at the corner of the square – a male someone, judging by the size of the black Nike shoes. What’s he doing out so late, what is he waiting for? He’s not a junkie; the shoes look new and expensive. Perhaps he’s waiting for the corner kiosk to open, he’s run out of cigarettes. But then the crumpled silver paper of a new pack drops next to his right foot. So it isn’t cigarettes. Maybe it’s beer he wants, he’s having an all-nighter with friends and they’ve run dry. But isn’t one of the four Exárhia kiosks open 24/7? So what is he waiting for? Or is it a whom?
Because as Alexis has explained to him and as he himself has read about in magazines and blogs, some of the rendezvous may take place in the small hours, after the bars have closed and the suppressed sperm has reached its boiling point.
So maybe it’s another man he’s waiting for, another boy with big, athletic shoes, to go home and make love with; and if the sex is good perhaps the boy will stay, sleep over, and they will wake up in the afternoon and they’ll be famished but they will fuck again before they have anything to eat.
He lies back on the sofa. His eyes are closing. He sees the half-smoked cigarette falling, thrown away in a haste, the black shoes moving slightly to and fro, impatiently; someone’s coming and he’s preparing to greet him – or her. As sleep overpowers him, Nicos thinks, pleading, Oh God; please no; let it be that he’s waiting for a girl.
This fine December morning finds Nicos staring at the toilet; he is horrified to the point of morbid fascination – for what he sees is so scary that it’s also somewhat unreal, an image out of a horror film; Alien, perhaps. It’s inconceivable that the scarlet mess splattered across the porcelain has come from his body, so warm and safe and fragile a body, with such a sensitive fluttering pulse. He feels faint, and he can’t tell if it’s because of the shocking amount of blood he’s lost or if it’s just from the sight of it.
He ought to flush but he is transfixed: so much blood and not a hint of pain. This isn’t normal; this is a sign – a sign that he’s so far gone he’s barely human. Human beings hurt when they bleed, whereas this vile internal massacre happened to him like a thing in a dream. It’s not even blood, he thinks; it’s too red, too much like Hollywood corn syrup. It’s figurative blood and he a figurative being that bleeds: a bleeding heart, Lady Macbeth’s madness-bespotted hands, a vampire with an upset stomach.
But this is no comic relief; this is real. This is the thing sustaining my wildly beating heart, this is my life seeping away. And suddenly the disease becomes palpable, a corporeal presence, a burglar in his home. If his heartbeat weren’t so deafening and his skin so clammy and numb, he could hear the footsteps approaching the bathroom; feel the murdering hands on his neck.
For two days he stays at home, to protect his body from its numerous enemies. The weather has taken a turn for the worse and he can’t risk catching a cold. Also, the Sunflower is full of people – potential carriers of an infinity of germs. He may have been avoiding the calls from the hospital concerning appointments he has puprosely missed, the doctor pleading with him and then threatening, saying that he was choosing a painful death over his only chance for survival and that he should in no way engage in unprotected sex, but there’s a difference between not wanting to know and not caring. He does care, but he feels nursing the disease himself is more dignified, wiser; like an ageing elephant who feels his death is near he wants to retreat in silence, disappear, guided by the self-preservation instinct to his own burial ground. Illness and gore and dying elephants: he feels a rising sympathy for Africa.
There have been more sacrifices to the porcelain Charon, unfortunately. And though he’s sworn he won’t, he finally Googles ‘bloody stool ’ and finds out that red means undigested and thus more likely coming from the colon – he’s probably experiencing one of the first symptoms of gastrointestinal cancer. Then he does the unthinkable and looks up cancers of the large intestine in general; amongst the various gruesome details he comes upon something suitably hurtful: the Web page of a proctologist from Utah, who not only seems to rely heavily on divine intervention – in a list of things to do if afflicted by rectal cancer he actually writes, Pray often and fervently – but also castigates ‘unnatural sexual practices ’, holding them responsible for many cases of anal carcinogenesis. This makes him feel doubly unnatural.
Asserting itself and its power, his mind takes perverse control over matter and Nicos is seized by a frenzied hypochondria: reality becomes fraught with invisible assailants and his body a round-the-clock violated temple. Having read an account on the ruinous effect of dust mites – monstrous microscopic spiders, crawling through your windpipe and spawning in your lungs – he attacks his apartment’s unseen filth with unprecedented rage, spending a full eight hours on his knees, scrubbing and sweating and cursing. A chronic smoker, he notices for the first time the menacing little obituaries on the packs: Smoking kills. Smokers die prematurely. There’s bronchitis to be taken into account, rapid oxidation of vitamin C which could lower his already struggling immune system. So he gobbles up vitamin supplements and quits smoking; but the nicotine withdrawal makes him fiendishly hungry, he’s stuffing his face with crackers and peanuts and dried fruit and so he’s constantly shitting more and more of his precious blood. To subdue his restlessness he masturbates like a teenager, mechanically, until his forearm is sore and his fingers rigid; however, many HIV-related sites mention that AIDS patients can develop rapid anghiopathies of the heart and brain, and he’s afraid that he might rupture a blood vessel with the exertion of cock-pumping.
He desperately tries to unthink the internal decay, but this proves to be almost impossible; books, once havens from the boredom and the loneliness, are too demanding – he can’t concentrate, the words become a blur; music, any music, depresses him enormously; the internet is off-limits – he’d just visit more medical sites which would make him panic, so he rips apart the modem line to be on the safe side; all that’s left to him are his DVDs, but even these won’t do – films he can’t focus on, porn makes him feel dirty (The unnatural are punished, speaks the voice of the Utahan proctologist), series seem pointless since he won’t be there to catch the next season. In what little time remains not devoted to fear and trembling, stupefied by a combination of vodka and codeine-containing analgesics – he’s afraid the cancer will begin to hurt – he lies on the living room couch watching TV.
But television, the universal vendor, sells above all else the ever popular product that is sex; commercials featuring sexy people; boys with sensual lips sequestered in reality-show singer-farms; soaps starring young sexy actors, cases of sexual molestation on the news, the archbishop denouncing extra-marital relations and the latest scoops on the secret sex lives of Greece’s rich and famous. Nicos, in whose mind sex and death have become one and the same, feels that he’s being mocked, that the TV is trying to hurt him deliberately; he’s angry and resentful. He contemplates getting back at the world, doing what the doctor fears and spreading the virus. However, some things are either learnt when young or not at all; he’s never driven a car or learnt to play an instrument or had sex with another man; even if he hadn’t gutted the modem, a one-night stand would be as impossible to pull off as a piano recital.
On the third day of his isolation, Zoì, whom he’s been feeding lame excuses, invades his home like a Crusader, intent on retrieving her beloved boss and restoring him to health. She knows he is unwell – she feels his forehead and kisses his cheek with doctor’s lips – and she’s carrying groceries. It’s all that shit you’re eating, she says, throwing away his snacks and installing herself in his kitchen, quite queenly in the apron she’s brought with her. She announces she’s going to make him chicken soup, a thing she believes can cure every ailment short of cancer. At least you keep a tidy kitchen, she says, condescendingly. A house without a woman’s touch is a pigsty.
Nicos feels a dizzy gratitude for all the trouble she’s gone to, but he’d rather be left alone; Zoì is too vibrant a presence in the deathly mood he’s in; also he hates chicken soup, and worries that the particular chicken might have been sick with avian flu. And besides it’s a whole different thing fretting about your health privately and having other people fuss over you and force you to eat broth and royal jelly and potassium-rich bananas. Now he feels really ill.
You don’t have to do this, you know. I’m fine.
Yeah, and I’m tall with a tiny waist and Jennifer Lopez’s butt. Eat your soup.
Everything okay at the Sunflower? I’m sorry I’ve left you all alone.
All alone? I wish! She lights a cigarette. You quit? Lucky you. Me, I simply can’t, I’ll get as big as a whale. Plus the thought that I left that putanáki to roam free –
Zoì pet, really! Why do you hate Margarita so much?
Because she’s a slut and a junkie and a thieving little whore, that’s why.
She’s never stolen from me – come on, you’re being unfair. And you shouldn’t call her a whore just because she’s a waitress. No one’s paying her to fuck her.
You got that right. No one with a sound mind would ever pay for that. What with her pierced bellybutton and nose ring and unwashed hair and flat tits – (this said with a thrust of her own plentiful bosom, an instinctive competition).
Now how on earth are the poor girl’s tits an issue? Would you prefer it if she had a cleavage to show off as well?
I’m telling you, she’s a junkie freak.
You’re being unreasonable.
Did you know she’s got an Albanian boyfriend? (This is her ace in the hole; like many among the financially deprived, Zoì nurtures a deep hatred towards economic migrants who she views collectively as illegal aliens and evildoers).
Nicos can’t help laughing at her fury. So what if she does?
Dumb rich kid. Go on, eat. Your soup’s getting cold.
When the force-fed lunch is over and she has cleaned up, Zoì comes into the living room where he’s sitting, watching a celebrity gossip show; she takes the remote tenderly from him, turns the TV off and sits next to him, holding both his hands. Her expression is earnest, the mothering gruffness gone.
Now listen, my baby Nicolì, she says, I know you don’t believe in the evil eye and stuff like that and I don’t blame you – you’re an educated man, younger than me...
Oh no, thinks Nicos. She’s going to go all religious on me now, I can feel it coming. She’s going to tell me about this new priest she’s met who’s really great at counseling, much better than my Jewish charlatan shrink; or she’ll have found this new miracle-working icon and she’ll want me to go with her and wait in line with a hundred thousand miserable fools; or make me wear an amulet. Zoì is generally prone to attacks of religiosity. But why now, he wonders, worried. Do I actually look so terrible?
Zoìtsa, he starts to say, I don’t –
Shush. Her doughy paw on his lips. Hear me out first. I don’t want you to come to church with me, I respect your atheicism.
He doesn’t correct her.
It’s something else. I’ve been meaning to tell you about it for some time.
(What is it? Not some cure for gayness, he hopes).
There’s this woman – I don’t know... She flusters, as if what she’s trying to say is embarrassing for her as well. I’ve only met with her a couple of times, but Nico... You wouldn’t believe it. She’s amazing.
What does she do? he ventures, suspiciously. (Judging from her reluctance, she’s a fortune teller. She’ll be able to look into the future and tell him he’s supposed to be happily married, a family man. Great).
But Zoì has a moment of startling intuition. Don’t give me that look, she says, angrily, letting go of his hands. She’s not some cheap medium-fraud, if that’s what you’re thinking. You must really think I’m stupid.
No, Zoìtsa, I’m not. I’m simply curious. What sort of amazing thing has she done for you?
I shouldn’t tell you, really, you don’t deserve it, always making fun of poor me. But, my God, Nico, you have to see it to believe it.
What does she do?? Tell me!
She – it’s like she knows everything! Everything that’s eating you. What’s making you sad and what’s making you ill and what kind of person you are. She knows it all. Read you like an open book, she can. I’m telling you, the first time I went out of curiosity, just like you said, but when she started telling me stuff about myself, secrets I’ve never told another soul, I didn’t know what hit me!
Sounds awfully much like a medium, you have to admit.
No no no. She’s no medium. Far superior than a medium. I mean, even I can read coffee dregs and say a prayer to make the evil eye go away. But she’s different. This woman... she has powers, like those guys from the East, you know – those bald-headed guys, the Buddhist infidels and the others, the Indians – ?
She’s a spiritual healer?
No no no, there’s another word for it. Guru! That’s it. She’s a guru!
Again he doesn’t correct her. He’s intrigued. So you went to this woman and she healed you?
No, she didn’t heal me, stupid. There’s nothing wrong with me. I just wanted to know if... She blushes.
She wanted to know if fate has a man in store for her, thinks Nicos. Poor Zoì.
Anyway, it doesn’t matter why I went. But she read my palm and then she told me to close my eyes and she felt my aura and told me about my... my tsírka –
The solecism is too much; tsírka is Greek for circus. You mean your chakras? he says, laughing.
That’s what I said, chakra. And don’t you laugh at me, dumb rich kid. You ought to go see her too. She worked wonders with me.
He still giggles uncontrollably. Maybe we should send Margarita too, to be cured from her craving for Albanians!
Ah! Why I bother with you, I don’t know! Just stop being an ass for one minute and listen. This woman, think what you want of her – you just have to go see her. Do it for me, Nicoláki, my precious. You know how I worry about you.
The sight of her pleading smile quenches his hysterics. You don’t have to worry, he says, feeling like the filthy liar he is.
Oh, Nicolì, but I do... I mean, look at you – living all alone, with no one to take care of you... She takes hold of his hand again. If he didn’t know better, if Zoì wasn’t such an angel, it could seem as if she were coming on to him.
Zoìtsa love –
Shush. Just promise me you’ll go. This woman is something else, she can read your mind. She says she talks with the spirits and I believe her – and you know me, I think all such talk is a sin, it’s not Christian talk, but still I believe her. Just give her a call and hear what she has to say. Do it for me.
Nicos promises, feeling somewhat awkward. And awkwardness grows to apprehension when Zoì reaches inside her purse and hands him a small card with only a name and a phone number written on it. The cart is a pretty mauve, the letters and numbers printed in gold. It looks serious and at the same time tawdry, like a call girl’s card might look; an association he’d rather not make.
Zoì leaves and he remains on the couch, lost in thoughts, looking at Persephone’s card. That’s her name, Persephone – although Nicos has seriously doubts it’s her real name. Most con artists use impressive-sounding names, and the Greek language is full of them.
Persephone, Persephone... he repeats, under his breath; Persephone – Mistress of the Underworld; snatched by a faceless evil and ever since living among dead souls, as in untimely death. It’s befitting, and ominous; and completely ridiculous.
He knows this woman must be a fraud, one of the millions who prey on the hopelessness of the weak. He has no time for her orientalist tripe.
What bothers him more, far more, is Zoì’s insistence that he seek this woman’s dubious services. Could she possibly know, by the instinct those who love us always have, that he’s dying? Or is it simply that he has overestimated Zoì’s affection and that deep down she’s an unintelligent homophobic person, believing that every gay man dies sooner or later from AIDS?
No, never. He needs and trusts Zoì’s love.
It’s her utter inability to help him that pains Nicos. The fact that this card, which she so lovingly urged him to use, is a sham.
Later that night, while he’s lost in sound, alcoholic sleep, the phone starts to ring. If he’d gone to bed he’d never have heard it, but lately he’s been favouring the couch; it’s a matter of connotations: there isn’t such a thing as a deathcouch.
So despite his stupor, when the phone rings and rings and rings he wakes up with a start. He looks at the time; it’s half past twelve. Are mom and dad okay? he wonders, as he stumbles to the phone. Who’s gonna make the call to tell them about me, when the time comes? A nurse? A neighbour complaining about the smell?
He picks up the phone and it’s a woman; her voice draws a blank.
Hello? I’m sorry I’m calling so late –
For a second he thinks it’s Persephone the Healer; he was dreaming about her, moments ago. The nerve of some people!
Listen lady, I don’t know how you got –
But she cuts in. Is Isaac there? she asks, her thin voice shaking. I’m terribly sorry, but I need to speak to Isaac.
He tells her she’s got the wrong number and hangs up before she has the time to make him feel sorry for her. Whoever this Isaac guy is, he must’ve really fucked you up, lady. And me as well. His head throbs from the violent waking.
But as he is ready to collapse on the couch, the phone rings again.
Ring ring. Throb throb. Oh, now she’s asking for it.
Can’t you tell the fucking time? he rails, and he’s ready to slam the receiver down and pull out the plug. But the woman is crying.
P-please... she begs, sniffling. I’m so sorry to disturb you, but could you just tell him it’s Mary?
Tell who? His voice has softened; his immune system seems unable to cope even with the vulnerability of a strange woman’s voice; she has infected him.
Isaac, she says. Can I speak to him, please?
I’m afraid you’ve got the wrong number. However, when she spells the number out, choking and sobbing, it’s the right one; it’s his own. I’m really sorry, miss, but I’ve lived here for almost five years and the number’s always been the same. You must have made some mistake.
He hangs up again and pulls the plug – yet not angrily. The phone calls shook him up. What did this Isaac do to Mary? And when? Has she held onto this number for half a decade? And if so, what could she possibly have to tell to someone with whom she hasn’t spoken for so long?
No, it can’t be that. Probably a misunderstanding; or a deliberate lie. Isaac meets Mary; Isaac fucks Mary; Mary is clingy and needy and cries easily; so Isaac tells Mary he doesn’t have a cell phone but it’s okay, he’ll give her his home number; and the fucker makes a number up and it is his.
Yet as he lies on the couch, fighting insomnia, the thought comes to him that this phone call might have a deeper meaning. Of course the poor girl had the wrong number – but for how long? How long can he claim this number as his own? Time will pass and the phone will be cut off, but the number will remain. And the phone company will pass it on to someone else; someone who may be called Isaac.
The pain that wakes him is so sharp, he thinks he must be dying. He screams, clutches his belly, gnashes his teeth, falls from the couch; he writhes on the carpet while the cancer gnaws at his insides; he screams, screams, moans; calls for help but there’s no one to help him.
Fluttering black bats of despair in his mind, between the beating of their wings his broken thoughts: it’s 5.42, I’ll die at 5.42, I’ll never see the sun again; I’ll never see my mother – my mother, my mother, I have to call my mother! But she’ll worry and it will only make things worse, just shut up an die already – but no, it won’t be worse, can’t be, nothing’s worse than this pain, nothing hurts more than dying.
He crawls to the phone to call for an ambulance but his hands are blind and his vision is numb and the phone for some reason isn’t working. Crawl moan crawl cry and he’s on the kitchen floor, panting. He gropes for the chair, tries to sit up; impossible – the lower half of his body lies in bloody shreds. He howls and howls, maybe some unknown neighbour; his stomach on the freezing tiles feels wet, maybe it is, maybe he’s been sliced open like a fruit. He must reach the medicine cupboard but God it’s too high he’ll never manage to stand up and then the wetness turns again to searing scorching fire, a baby dragon’s breath, it burns and chews and tears him with its claws – it’s coming out!
He wakes up shivering. The skin on his face stretches with dried-up tears and snot; his lips taste blood-salty, he must have been biting them; he shivers again and realizes he has wet himself.
He lies in the tub, his body hidden by the bubble bath foam; let it remain hidden. So much for dying with dignity, he thinks. Not that he’s ever deluded himself; Nicos knows he’s not brave – he dodged the draft, he’s never made love. But the thought that this last hope should be crushed so completely has deadened his heart. He who lives alone dies soaked in piss.
This can’t happen again, he’d rather kill himself than live another dawn like this one. But it’s not just the pain; the panic was worse, and there’ll be panic sure enough even with pills, even with a gun, it will only be the shadow of a moment but he knows he doesn’t have the guts. His guts belong to the disease.
He will call for an ambulance and let them take him to a hospital; at least there he’ll be stuffed with painkillers that will make him sleep – forever, hopefully. He’ll call his parents too, and Zoì, perhaps even Alexis, to say his goodbyes. And a lawyer, before he becomes legally insane with pain or morphine or both.
But as the water caresses his sore abdomen, washing away the pain and the imagined blood, he reverts from animal to human. He starts to feel better, and thinks, Why should I suffer the doctors’ reproaches for my negligence? Why worry helpless mom and dad and poor Zoìtsa? None of them can do a thing to help me anyway. And maybe – just maybe – the pain means it’s not cancer after all; I might get better. The last of Pandora’s curses begins to warm his heart.
And hope, springing eternal, grows quickly out of proportion. All is not lost. There’s still one person who might be able to help him.
God, this is pathetic, thinks Nicos. I’m such a hypocrite.
Zoì at least has an excuse, she doesn’t know better; I should.
She’s not even there, or she’s just too busy charging some poor housewife a couple hundred for the reading of her aura. Imbecile. Coward. Faggot. What’s next? A trip to Tibet, maybe? Shamans and crystal healing?
Hello? says a husky voice.
(Oh God; with that voice she’s a definite stoner; Jesus Christ, it’s ten in the morning).
Hello. I hope I’m not disturbing, but I was wondering – (Wonder away, big boy; I’m so high, it’s all the same to me).
You must be Nicos.
(Is business that slow? Or is she trying to impress me with her wizardry?) I guess Zoì must have mentioned –
She has an exquisite soul, your friend: a royal purple.
(I’m sure she does – the colour of 500-euro bills). So she’s told you about me?
No. You will. You will come to me.
(Such nerve! Is she for real??) I –
You will come to me because you’ve been in great pain. You thought you were dying, didn’t you? You pissed yourself like a baby.
He’s so dumbfounded he can neither speak nor breathe. This is too infuriating and too frightening for words, any words, to describe.
I know you’re mad at me, but I’d rather be honest with you. See, I have my needs too. It’s really quite simple, Nico. I want a bit of your money to give you a bit of help. What do you say, eh?
He might say that he’s calling the cops, that she’s clearly installed some hidden camera inside his home – otherwise how could she know what she knew? But despite his justified rage and the mocking and the fear, without realizing it, each time Persephone says something, her voice erases what she’s just said a second ago. Trying to remember the details of what she told him would be as impossible as to recall the exact pattern of raindrops on a windshield after the wiper has wiped it clean; only the new drops can be seen and he has to react before she says something else, before her offer of help disappears from his mind.
He says yes.
In the back seat of the cab taking him to what she referred to as her ‘workspace’, Nicos’s heart gallops with delirious hope. Pedestrians and drivers have ceased to be the throng that jeer at him by being alive; he too can share their pleasure at the wintry sunshine, he too can participate in what goes on; he even dreams abstractly of love. Persephone’s call – it feels as though she were the one to call him – has filled him with the orgasmic tremor of expectancy; suddenly it’s not death but life that seems imminent.
He’s done his homework naturally, since the phone call. It would be shameful, a disrespect, to seek this woman’s help after a lifetime of treating with contempt the arts of the paranormal. He felt obliged to cram his mind with as much supernatural trivia as possible, so he went to an Internet café and devoured case after case of mystical healings and miraculous recoveries and other various precedents of transaction with the Great Beyond.
He revelled at the writings of an oncologist from Buenos Aires, who claimed to have cured patients with inoperable tumors with a strict diet of eating only grapes combined with daily prayers and incantations to the Mayan Healer-God Itzamna. He felt exhilaration reading about a young Indonesian, who, during trips caused by hearty quantities of a bluish mushroom (indigenous to the forests of Pura Besakih), saw his ãtman manifest itself as a physical entity, curing him from a terminal case of hepatitis C. And he almost wept with joy and gratitude when he read the blog describing a Londoner’s heroic fight against the HIV: after two years of going to bed anointed from head to toe with olive oil blessed by priests of Mount Athos, his viral load had plummeted to zero overnight.
There is hope, he thinks; the truth is out there. I don’t have to tolerate being stuck with needles, lying on my back; I don’t have to be reduced to an emaciated liability, a matter of hospital bets. Somewhere along his journal, this Lazarus of London wrote: ‘To them I was a lost cause. I’d heard nurses talking about the hospital’s terminal wing, calling the patients RTC’s to their face: Ready To Croak. Some of them even betted money on the outcome of the poor blokes’ hopeless treatment. If I’d stayed there and been given their bloody cocktails I’d be long dead.’
So, no – to hell with modern medicine, to hell with their drugs and their obvious indifference. This woman Persephone was far more powerful than they, he felt sure of it. She would be able to cure him whereas they’d wash their hands of him.
But as the taxi climbs the steep roads of Pangráti, bringing him closer to this possible yet far from certain salvation, the house of cards begins to tremble, the uppermost cards surrendering one by one to the breeze of common sense, the frail foundations unable to hold for much longer their grip on Nicos’s intelligent soul.
He knows the true reason for this sudden revolt against accepted science, for his desperate clinging to far-fetched ideas: he’s let things get too out of hand. Of course the cocktails won’t do him any good, of course he’ll be a liability. Bad predisposition, bad luck, a monstrously bad fate – all that remains is this slimmest chance of survival, based upon his mad unfounded faith to Persephone’s powers. It is a mighty weapon, faith; most scientists respect it. But what if the mind is only half-believing? What if the body remains unconvinced?
The borough of Výron, some fifteen minutes from downtown Athens by cab – traffic jams and protest marches notwithstanding – is a rather charming urban appendix, the upper half of which extends for a couple of miles as a scattering of oldish houses built at the foot of mount Hymettus (provider of quite a lot of marble in the antiquity). Owing perhaps to this upward climb – suggestive of heavenly aspirations – it has been named after Lord Byron, to honour his glorified view of Greece, his ill-fated yet passionate endeavour to aid the War of Independence, as well as (probably) the fact that, wearing the fez and the foustanélla, he must have looked cute as a button.
On the furthest, most isolated spot of this rocky region, the mountain casting an oppressive shadow on its tiny yard, stands a small and tired house painted yellow. The front door is open and in the doorway a woman awaits, smoking and smiling. She’s tall and willowy and dark as a Rom, with raven-black hair and eyes of burning coal, eyes that pierce you even from a distance. Now the woman takes one last puff and throws the cigarette away. Her gaze is fixed on a man coming out of a taxi.
Nicos says to himself in a stern voice, Don’t be judgmental. Here lives your last hope. But he can’t help it.
The bad taste is alarming; offensive, even. The décor is a veritable orgy of New Age kitsch: wind chimes hanging everywhere, lurking about his head as he moves, their eerie metallic whispering irritating; the air thick and foggy with what smells like dozens of different incense sticks burning simultaneously – a fetid olfactory nightmare; the light scant, coming from garish lamps and vile aromatic candles that stain the violet walls and Persian kilims with large splotches of whorehouse red. As for the ‘workspace ’ itself, it is loaded with an army of bric-a-brac (crystals and vials and talismans and statuettes and – revoltingly – a stuffed bat with open wings and long, sharp fangs) the shelves threatening to collapse under the weight, burying the tiny round table and the two footstools which are meant for Persephone’s dealings under a heap of mystical rubble – an interior made even more stifling by the fact that the cluttered little room is windowless, defenceless against the assault of the burning sticks.
Persephone offers him herbal tea or chamomile but he politely refuses; the thought of swallowing anything besides his own saliva is nauseating. She sits on the footstool, her slender knees protruding through the lilac linen dress to the level of her jawline. This won’t take too long, thinks Nicos, squatting precariously on the opposite stool.
She must have noticed his sullenness or the twitching of his nose, because she says, pointing at the twirls of pungent smoke, I’m sorry about the smell, but it’s the only way. This place has to be a reality secluded from reality.
(Get outta here!) I see.
She turns around and from a niche hidden behind a sequined scarf that hangs on the wall she produces a small mother-of-pearl-inlaid bowl of walnuts. She places it on the table in front of him and asks, Would you like some additional strength before your session?
Nicos looks at the walnuts, thinking that he’s being offered a nutritious snack. But there isn’t a nutcracker to be seen. For God’s sake, he thinks, how am I supposed to eat the damn things? This is worse than I feared. No, thank you, he says, making a polite gesture of pushing the bowl away.
It is a different strength I was talking about, she says, smiling. You see, Nico, these sessions can be quite trying for the weak of heart; most people like a bit of courage before they embark on their inner journey. So I ask you again – would you like some extra strength before we begin?
Okay, he says, relaxing. (I’ll play your game. Let’s see you crack them open with bare hands).
Persephone takes one walnut, makes a round ‘O’ of her purple lips and puts it in her mouth. Then she closes her eyes and brings her jaws together and an awful ‘crack’ is heard. Nicos’s stomach churns; he expects to see blood, broken teeth. The woman is clearly psychotic.
But then Persephone swallows with visible pain and opens her eyes, and when she smiles her teeth are unhurt, without the tiniest speck of blood.
This is it? wonders Nicos. Tricks? Although he’s horrified by what he’s just witnessed. What now – she gonna pull coins from behind my ears? Shoot pigeons out her ass?
You don’t have to be such a bigot, she says. She takes a cigarette from a silver case and lights up. Ugh, I can never get used to the taste.
Then maybe you shouldn’t eat them whole, he says.
Still with the jokes. But it’s okay. At least now you’re strong enough to listen to what I have to say to you.
Nicos crosses his legs, he too lights a cigarette. If this is going to be such a ludicrous waste of time he might as well enjoy himself. I’m all ears, Mrs. Persephone.
No matter what you do, no matter how hard you try, the disease will kill you.
Flushed and flabbergasted; eyes wide-open, unbelieving; an echo of the word disease . How did she know? Did Zoì tell her? Does she know?
Persephone continues to smoke nonchalantly; she takes the burning cigarette that’s fallen from his hand and puts it back, between his limp fingers. Of course she doesn’t know. She’d be crying her eyes out 24/7 now, wouldn’t she?
(She would indeed. But then how – ?)
How I know what I know is not important.
(But it is!) He feels infernally ashamed!
No, Nico, it isn’t; and you needn’t feel shame. Would you ask a doctor to tell you how he knows you have a heart murmur? Would it be important? And should you be ashamed to have a bad heart? You’re human, aren’t you?
(And you are not?) He still can’t speak; this is a double shock.
What I am is not important either. I know this must be a shock, I know how much you were counting on me, how I got your hopes up and believe me, you have my deepest sympathy. But unfortunately, yours is not a flexible destiny.
A tear rolls down his cheek. (What’s that supposed to mean? I wanna live!)
She takes his hand and starts to stroke it, ever so gently. There are yielding lines running through the Scope, Nico love; and there are some that are rigid. You cannot bend the unbendable – you can only break it.
He’s weeping now, mutely as a child, his shoulders shaking.
Ah, don’t cry; please don’t. It makes me feel helpless, and helpless I’m not.
(But you just said so! You said I’m gonna die! I put my life in your hands, my whole life, and you just crumpled it up like a paper and tossed it into the fire! I don’t wanna die I don’t wanne die I DON’T WANNA DIE !!!)
I’m afraid you will; you must. But all is not lost –
(yeah, I’ve heard that one before!)
–because there are more than one ways to die. She tightens the grip on his hand.
(Yeah? What you gonna do? Gimme a shot of phenobarbital? Kill me with a spell? Make that bat come to life and bite me?)
Ah, yes, it’s here at last, the anger I’m sending to your soul. Her hand becomes a vice around his own. You’ll see, dear Nico, wait and you’ll see. Just promise me you’re gonna use this anger, let it burn in your mind so that you’ll wake up. You must wake up and when you do you have to be strong and intelligent and furious. You must wake up.
(Wake up? But I’m not sl – )
Nicos sleeps. At once a terrible burden makes him double up. Inhuman pain shoots through his vertebrae and skull and thorax and limbs. A monster weight has been loaded onto his back.
It is a rock, which he’s been forced to carry in this unforgiving dreamland; a huge black slab of hardened lava that hasn’t cooled entirely; its enormously heavy heart still burns, burning him, making the pain even worse.
He’s carrying the rock along a steep ascent which becomes steeper with every groaning step he takes, an upward path that has no end. He cries out for help but he’s alone on this slope, he looks down and sees that he’s walking on brambles which cut into his feet. Pain is like God, it’s everywhere, inside and out. And yet he trudges on, he has to, he must carry the rock, he simply must; he doesn’t know who put it on his unsuspecting shoulders, or why, or to what purpose. It’s absurd, that one should be forced to carry such a burden all alone on this impossible terrain; that it should be he who pants and moans and staggers along.
Sometimes the pain becomes so unbearable he thinks he should just let go, let the rock crush him, take him to an oblivion where there will be no pain. He’s afraid though, of letting go, of the moment when the rock will make splinters of his bones and mush of his flesh. He cries but he can still see; dead, he would be blind.
He closes his teary eyes, pushes, takes another step. At least the path could be cleared from the thorns that butcher his bare feet; at least the rock could be cool instead of scorching hot; or it could be lighter, yes, why should it weigh so much, why should the angle of his torture be so forbiddingly sharp?
He proceeds, trembling with rage at so much injustice; he curses the rock and the brambles and the interminable mountain; if it weren’t for these damned misfortunes the weight alone wouldn’t be too bad, he could bear it. He curses his weakness; why can’t he find the strength to give in and be crushed and dead and free?
But then a sudden thought. No, not the mountain; not the core of burning lava, not the razor-sharp thorns; not his all too human weakness.
Why should he be made to carry a big rock in the first place?
It would be best simply if the rock had never existed at all.
I can’t undo my life, you Gypsy cunt!
Nicos has woken from the dream without the slightest recall, only with a suffocating, seething rage.
He’d found himself lying on his back on a soft purple divan, and Persephone was kneeling next to him, trying to make him drink some syrupy rose-smelling liquid. He pushed her away violently, sat up and would have struck her, hadn’t he been instantly mollified by her smile. But the rage was too much to suppress.
Then she started to talk, some nonsense again about understanding, and waking up into the light of truth. You see, non-existence doesn’t have to be achieved only through the norm of suffering. You know this now, don’t you, Nico? You see how much more simple it would be if you undid your life?
It was then that he started to howl.
You think it never came to me, you fucking freak? You think I need to come to this fucking hovel with the incense sticks burning to cover the stink of your unwashed clothes and your ageing pussy to find out that I can kill myself? That I’ve no one to think of because I’m a fag? What about my parents? What about Zoì? How could I hurt so much the people I love?
Tears are filling his eyes and overflowing, but that does nothing to diminish the onslaught. Persephone listens with an almost passionate smile.
What? You think it’s funny, dying, because in your total fucking ignorance you think you’ll be returning as a fucking black bear or one of your fucking crystals? You think this is easy? Just a couple hundred pills and half a bottle of vodka and a touching note, a jump off the balcony? Of course to you it’s just a second, but you don’t have to come to my fucking funeral, you won’t be my mother and you won’t be Zoì, unemployed at forty-two because her fuckin’ queer boss shot his pathetic brains out! I bet you really do think it’s easy, don’t you? (Sniffle sniffle moan). I bet you’re thinking, Why not make a farce out of the whole thing, why not plan a fuckin’ charade and say you’ve gone to Áyion Óros and will be staying there indefinitely, so mom and dad please don’t worry, coz after all you knew your son was a great big homo and sooner or later he was bound to do something completely fucked-up like going to live with a bunch of bearded guys – maybe he found himself some big old monk to plow his fucking AIDS-infested hole, good for him, good for him! You think I never thought of that, that I needed your fucking hocus-pocus shit just to make up my mind?
At this point Persephone parts her smiling lips and whistles. The sound is deafening: the scarlet curtain flutters, a glass jug explodes and Nicos stops at once, covering his ears with his hands.
Don’t you get carried away, Nicoláki, she says, once more smiling. She lights a cigarette, blows three perfect rings, waits for his near-burst eardrums to adjust to the tone of her voice. I’m glad to see you’re angry – it is a force of life, but still sadly unfocused. You still believe the only way to achieve a soothing zero is by subtracting one from one. Yet it is not so; it’s a matter of choice. You can also get there by adding minus one to one.
Nicos is wiping away the tears, looking at her with fury and embarrassment and the utter bewilderment of a schoolboy. What’s that supposed to mean? he says.
Persephone comes closer; she sits next to him on the divan.
What do you think about time travel?
(Oh, this is a colossal waste of time. It would’ve been far more productive if I’d just stayed home and jerked off).
Nico, please try and listen to something besides the voice of your own intolerance. You can masturbate later, to whatever time this ‘later ’ pertains.
And you better stop reading my mind, cause I’m not buyin’ this shit.
Really? An haughty raising of the eyebrows. I thought it would impress you hugely; convince you of my powers, anyhow.
No, it doesn’t, it’s just annoying, and also it’s highly suspicious that you seem to know so much about me. There’s cameras, you know; tiny little things, optical fibers, something you might’ve slipped poor Zoì –
That silly thing you’d gotten for Hector, she says. Why’d you think about taking it with you when you found it lying in the closet? You plan on buying a dog?
Nicos stares at her. His mind fills with the image of the fuzzy bleating sheep, the memory of its voice makes him want to cry. Persephone takes his hand.
I’m sorry I brought it up, Nicolì, but you know how stubborn you can be.
I’ve never told anyone about it.
Hush, I know, it’s okay. For now you will forget the sheep.
Eh? What sheep? What’re you talking about? (Oh God I hope she doesn’t suggest we sacrifice a lamb or something).
Ha ha. You’re a funny guy. But you haven’t answered my question. Would you consider travelling back in time?
You mean like, to meet some great hero of mine who lived in the past?
No. That would be pointless – why should they care to meet you? I’m talking about visiting the past on a more personal basis. Visiting your past. Would you?
Well, I guess – maybe. I don’t know. I’m not particularly fond of my past, you know. It’s not like I’ve lived the vida loca or antyhing. And besides, what does it matter if I would or wouldn’t? What difference does it make?
But if you could return to a specific point in time and change things, things that will affect your life in the future – would you do it?
Sure. I mean, who wouldn’t? What, you think I never thought about turning back time so that I wouldn’t have sex with that hooker, or be smart enough to wear a condom? Of course I would.
Yes – but that, I’m afraid, is forbidden.
Wow, Persephone, you really blew my mind – you’re some kind of genius!
Think about the time before the hooker. Before you were born.
Nicos thinks about it and laughs. Well, I guess I’d go and find her and tell her she’s infected; if it would shake her, that is. Or else, strangle her; or her mother, who was probably in the same business.
You’re getting closer, but you have to think about it realistically: say you leave this part of the Scope as we speak, to travel backwards in time; you’re still going to die in your actual manifestation, but what about the time before you existed?
Well, I don’t care much about the Sixties; the junta must have been the pits.
Persephone releases his hand and glares at him, her smile vanishing instantly.
Can you at least try to be serious? Can you be honest with me and with yourself and consider for a moment what I’m asking you?
Nicos lights a cigarette with shaking hands. He feels another outburst coming. Okay, I’ll be serious – dead serious, seeing as my death is the one thing you’re positive about despite your mumbo-jumbo. And I’m asking you, seriously asking you – what the fuck does it matter if I consider travelling back in time? Hello, the past doesn’t exist! What’s done cannot be undone and fair is fucking foul! You said it yourself, I’m gonna die, and wishing about turning back time won’t do a thing to change it! It’s self-explanatory, dammit, the past is the fucking past – it’s gone, it’s as dead as I am!
Oh, but you’re wrong. You’re so wrong it’s mouthwatering.
From an unseen pocket of her dress Persephone brings out a pomegranate.
You think the past is like this pomegranate, don’t you? she says. As soon as something happens, it becomes a solid dead thing that drops from the tree of time. You think the only chance of visiting the past is by tasting its sweet or bitter dead core – the kernels of the fruit, the memories of moments which aren’t really moments anymore. But to bring it back to life, to have another tree spring from this hard, concrete thing is impossible; old time can’t become new again.
And it’s only natural – that is the very purpose of the Scope, that’s how it works; if it didn’t create this illusion of stability, solidity, we’d all be driven mad.
However, it is only an illusion, a trick of time being quicker than itself, of seconds outsmarting seconds – it’s space and all that’s inside it, generating from nothing, of inertia appearing as movement, overlaying flatness that gives a sense of depth, instants of dying entropy which we perceive as energy, as life.
We are like two-dimensional puppets, weightless, who have been caught in a snowstorm; too tiny to picture the snowflakes that fall on our heads, each one weighing as much as a universe, scarcely able to realize that there is actual snow-filled space surrounding us, that this is not just a linear succession of snowflakes.
And all the while, each one of these tiny frozen particles that through the movement of time and wind appear to have become lost, merged with the melting slush, remains autonomous where it has fallen, unmerging and unmelting, for the Scope has no energy to spare with which to destroy its countless momentary projections; so that time is really an infinity made up of tiny infinities – the present and the past and every single thing that has happened inside them an independent, undying world in itself.
Most people would think that this is it, as far as wonders go; that we are forbidden to ever touch this endless library of snow, because it has passed, it passes, and each new zero-lasting world is forever inaccessible, bound to the rest by a strict causal – some fools believe even a moral – linearity.
But let me tell you something, Nico: nothing inside the Scope is bound to anything. There can be freedom of movement because in fact there is no movement. You can reverse time because there is no time, at least not in the sense that we’re accustomed to perceiving it. The only impossibility is that a thing, whatever it may be, should return to a layer of reality containing it already – the two masses of nothingness comprising each occurence of the thing would collide and amplify or devour each other, destabilizing the Scope’s immaculate balance, its basic rule of never applying more energy to itself than the illusion of energy it helps create in the oncoming, future realities.
You shouldn’t fear to try it yourself; this is no revelation, after all; men with half or hundredfold my powers have tried and succeeded in disassociating, severing themselves from the illusory flux: they are the ones called wise, or perceptive, or imaginative. Yet all it takes is a slight readjustment of the soul, a descent into the inner stillness and tranquility of the millions of universes that we contain – and as easy as that, you can step out of the Scope and find yourself living in the past, in any succession of the worlds you thought were lost among the cobwebs of memory.
What do you say, Nicolì, would you like to try it?
Nicos is astonished, and angry at himself for this astonishment. Snowflakes and pomegranates; puh-lease. It’s just that he didn’t expect this fortyish swarthy woman to possess such surprisingly abstract eloquence. But it’s all part of her sales pitch, even though unusual. So, Yes, he says. Why not? If it’s that easy. Just gimme something first to tranquilize my soul; gin would be fine.
Persephone laughs, a crystalline birdsong that makes him flinch. Maybe she’s mad; he shouldn’t have come here without telling anyone.
You think I actually mind that you don’t believe me? You think I care? Just tell me, dying boy – where would you like to be taken to as proof of what I’ve told you?
Nicos ponders silently; if she insists with this nonsense, why not ask for something equally outrageous? He’s a paying customer after all.
I want to be taken to the time of dinosaurs, he says; the Jurassic era, or something like that. You think you can pull it off, or is it too long ago?
She reciprocates the cunning smirk. All right, she says. This should be fun. But you have to express your wish as a specific date or period of time.
Ah, let’s see now... (Another cigarette). I don’t know exactly how long ago – although I should, when I was little I was positively in love with dinosaurs, I wanted to become a paleontologist; pff... I don’t know, say, about 50 million years ago?
That’s it? Persephone asks, eager as an airline employee. Fifty million years?
Yeah, that should do it.
I’d like to be paid first, if you don’t mind.
(I’m sure you would). No problem; here – He takes a hundred from his pocket. This enough to do the trick?
She takes the green bill gently and tucks it under a golden bracelet she’s wearing. The gesture is instinctive and strangely ominous; it is as though she’s used to being paid for time travel. I should warn you, though, she says. This might be a bit scary; and you’d better hand me your cell phone as well, if you’re particularly attached to it.
(What are the odds of that ever happening, love?) It’s okay, thanks.
Suit yourself, Nicolì. She smiles, then takes the pomegranate and cradles it in her palms like a roughly shaped egg (a dinosaur egg, thinks Nicos). And like an egg, when she bends her head and whispers softly in the pointy-edged root, the fruit cracks and opens as if from within, as if alive.
Nicos stares, fascinated despite himself. She’s really good, this Persephone; he wouldn’t put it past her to swallow the thing whole, like she did the walnut.
From the bloody core she carefully removes a single kernel and gives it to him. Nicos examines the seed in mock amazement, his eyes wide open; then he eats it.
Suddenly he’s drowning in a dark, furious sea.
All around him blackness and freezing churning water, a monster force that plays blindly with the struggling to float molecule that is his body.
He screams for help but even as he does, the depth into which his voice is lost, the power of the wind’s silent howl and the darkness, the vast immeasurable darkness, unbroken by star or man-made light, tell him that there’s no point in trying, no help will ever come; these are times hostile to such a vulnerable miniscule creature; humanity and its inhabitable planet haven’t yet emerged from the chaos.
As the vicious waters of Tethys – thick with coils of algae and shoals of primitive fish that bind his flailing limbs even more strongly to the mass – toss him here and there, flashes erupt in the nebulous sky: miles of white-and-purple cords of electrons rushing together, ancestors of a mad Zeus’s thunderbolts, turning the night into day for as long as five or seven seconds at a time.
It’s even worse when these lightnings shine upon the world in which Nicos is fighting for dear life; it is a nightmare. Because in the split second it takes his stunned retinas to recover before being plunged again in total dark, he sees the mountains of waves all around him, and the abyss that so frantically claims him: a mass of greenish tentacles, unknown sharks with deformed heads, and saurian necks which surface and redive, holding on their ends the pointed heads of Mesozoic giants, whose deafening moans are one with the wind and pierce him with their vibrations to the bone.
He adds to the salt of the sea with his desperate tears. Not like this, his panicked mind repeats, not like this, I can’t die like this, I can’t just disappear into the bottom of a prehistoric sea, my poor body can’t be devoured by a dinosaur!
And then all of a sudden it can: one of the mostly herbivorous colossi that swim beneath his feet opens its mouth and with the power of a thousand voids sucks greedily the water and the seaweed and Nicos, who is caught in the midst. With a last scream he surrenders to the mighty pull, water fills his eyes and mouth and when he breathes again, coughing up strings of furry plankton, he’s swimming in a broth that stinks like vomit and burns his eyes. He screams again inside the stomach of the beast, his voice reverberates on mucous membranes and ligaments and bones, scaring his accidental eater to death. With an instinctive retch (it must have swallowed something vile) Nicos is cast again into the sea, but this time he’s underwater and so terrified that he can’t tell which way the surface is. His eyes are closed against the gastric fluids and the flashes, he doesn’t want to look, he can’t, he just thrashes and thrashes with all his strength, using his last precious breath to dive unknowingly towards the yawning deep.
His mind feels death approaching and shoots wild currents through itself to comfort Nicos in his last moments. It’s funny, he thinks, how convincing this feels. For after all this has to be a hallucination, the bitch must have fed him LSD when he was passed out, or maybe it was in the pomegranate, how’d she do it, with a needle probably, she pierced it with a needle and spiked it, he’s got to hand it to her though, the woman’s got some premium acid.
He’s still half-lost in the dying thought that everything happening is a hallucination when he inhales and chokes and vomits and opens his unseeing eyes. He thinks the laughter and the shouting and the voices (Hey dude! You alright? Where’d he come from? Did you see that? ) are all part of a drug-induced dream; when in fact he’s lying semi-conscious on the balcony of the Galaxy bar, at the top of the Athens Hilton, safe and terminally ill and back in the 21st century.
He tries to forget for as long as possible. He tries to behave like nothing out of the ordinary has happened or is about to happen to him. Christmas is in the air – a very mild and sunny Greek Christmas, as if to give the baby Jesus a warm welcome – so he joins Alexis and Nassos on their shopping spree and then dons his gay apparel and goes bar-hopping with them (a thing that surprises and worries them too obviously). He goes to Kifissià and has thrombotic brunch with his parents and some of their close friends, and tries not to think about Hector and the forlorn little sheep. On New Year’s Eve he decides to join the general festive spirit and play the alcoholic Santa: in an unprecedented gesture – severely criticized by Zoì – he fills Exárhia and most of the city centre with leaflets and posters advertising that the Sunflower will be serving free drinks from 2 a.m. till closing time (come and close us down! says the cheeky ad). His loyal clientele of low-income students, freaks and heavy drinkers follow the posters’ bidding to the letter, swarming the bar and the dancefloor and treating him with adoration – hugging and kissing and making him climb onto the bar and stagedive. He feels loved in this crowd, he feels connected and indestructible, glittering-new as the new year; so he drinks as much as they do, if not more. At 4.49, Zoì – checking the restrooms to make sure the junkies and hooligans weren’t making away with the soaps or the condom dispenser – finds him lying in a pool of his own, vibrant red vomit.
Nicos spends the first four days of the new year bedridden, in various wings of the Evanghelismòs Hospital; from the intensive care unit, where they make sure that he hasn’t suffered a stomach perforation, to radiology and thence to internal medicine, where at last, sparing himself and the doctors the embarrassment, he reveals the truth. The bereft, vigilant Zoì doesn’t leave him alone for one second, but he rather wishes she did; she is constantly weeping, her tears endless like the recycled water of a feng-shui decorative fountain; whatever the news, good or bad, whatever word he utters in sleepiness, gratitude or pain, the response is the same: a new deluge of grief. Nicos begs her not to tell anyone, his parents especially, and she mutely agrees, but when she overhears him talk to the doctors about the virus she starts to wail like a Neapolitan widow and has to be carried away and eventually sedated. This worries him terribly – it isn’t funny anymore, people are getting hurt – but as soon as she recovers from the shock and reinstalls herself at his bedside, she swears that she won’t tell a soul about the ‘evil disease’ (this is an expression used by many old-school Greeks and it refers to cancer, but Nicos doesn’t correct her; maybe she’s covering up so that the other patients won’t hear or maybe she just wishes to believe that it’s really cancer, which in some cases can be cured). But Zoì’s hysteria is the least of his problems.
It’s when the actual treatment begins that this four-day Purgatory interlude utterly collapses into Hell; the gastroscopy and the doctors’ rebukes seem like kisses on the cheek after he’s received his first dose of chemotherapy. They have decided that to fight the virus is no longer feasible – they’d rather attack the cancer on its onset, before it spreads to his oesophagus or his lungs or his spine, causing unbearable pain and demanding mutilative and pointless operations. Nicos is so numb and dumb with horror that at first he doesn’t realize that the stuff seeping into his IV (covered with aluminum foil for some reason, as if it’s a surprise) is causing him this terrible unease – he thinks it’s simply panic. But then the cytostatic in his blood reaches the desired peak and the poison is released not only into the tumour but into millions of healthy cells that have to die as collateral damage. The hand with the IV feed is suddenly on fire, the vein burns as if it’s vitriol they’re giving him, he screams with pain and tries to remove the tube and has to be restrained by two nurses; then, with a violent spasm he starts to vomit and vomit and vomit, it’s never-ending, his throat and mouth feel flayed, blood and spit and bile floats in the pan held by a crying Zoì, and Nicos wishes that he could finally cough up the accursed organ itself, that he could turn inside out and die.
Two days later he is released and made to promise the doctors that he’ll be coming back for his next shot of chemo; they even give him some AZT pills, instructing him to take one every twelve hours – but Nicos thinks this is just for show, so that he won’t feel too hopeless and neglect his appointment or kill himself. It angers him, this unwanted exhibition of sympathy from a bunch of strangers; they mean well of course; they all mean well when you’re the one dying and not they. But as much as he respects their expertise, while he walks to the taxi, rigid and weak and supported by Zoì, he knows he’s never coming back.
It is much harder to keep pretending now that he’s received such an official, graphic foretaste of what his death will be like. The options have been laid out, he is free to choose. His freedom, to the existentialists’ cruel satisfaction, is a terrible one: at each end lies the terror of his mortal shell.
Yet there is more to a man than the shell; necessity is the mother of invention, and death can be the most fertile of fathers.
Using the sharp, detached clarity usually associated with psychoses, Nicos starts to organize the details of his departure. He has accepted the fact that this life is coming to an end; but he’s determined in the meantime to embark on a new one.
I’m afraid I won’t be needing any more therapy, he says to Dr. Siòn, smiling with genuine confidence. I think I’ve been cured.
This isn’t true. In fact, he’s been having more and more trouble sleeping; whenever it doesn’t replay the horrors of the primordial Mediterranean, his mind is suffused with dread over the hospital, the chemotherapy, the helplessness. But it’s okay – soon enough, it’ll be biting more than it can chew. He can’t be bothered with sleep.
The sagacious shrink notes the suppressed tension, the glary eyes, the twitching of the fingers and smiling lips – Nicos is smoking, taking a puff every other second – and is disheartened: either this is a very atypical acceptance of grief, or it’s a textbook case of organic paranoia, caused perhaps by a cerebral tumour or a degeneration of the brain’s blood vessels brought on by the virus. He knows Nicos’s aversion towards dealing with his illness, and the fact that he has mentioned being to the hospital upsets him; at this point, any change is a bad sign. So what are your plans for the future? he asks. He’s hoping for a joke (Nicos has exhibited quite an abundance of self-sarcasm), but the reply he gets is in earnest – and too abrupt.
I’m going to Berlin, says Nicos. I’ve been thinking about it for a while, you see. These easyJet tickets are such a bargain it’s ridiculous, and I’ve been told it’s absolutely marvellous – great food, great wine, and everything scandalously cheap. Plus, they’ve got this amazing attitude towards AIDS patients: you can receive treatment while leading a perfectly normal life, without feeling like a freak or a pariah. So that’s that – you always told me I should make something of the rest of my life, and what’s better than visiting a city I’ve never been to, one with such an intriguing history? I’ve looked up some great hotels on the Internet, you wouldn’t believe the prices, it’s a shame, really, how expensive life has become in Grecce – and for what? I just have to make sure and bring some heavy clothing, or my nuts’ll freeze off, and it’s not like I have lymph cells to spare now, do I? I’ll bring back a nice big chunk of the Berlin Wall to put on your desk, sort of a paperweight, eh? What d’you say?
The doctor nods, alarmed; Logorrhea, he says to himself; typical. Oy.
Nicos suddenly springs to his feet. He looks at his watch. Now, Dr. Siòn, I know how depressing goodbyes can be, but I really have to say goodbye – let’s be honest with each other, what are the odds of seeing me again and knowing it’s me, when my lovely hair has fallen off and I’m weighing ten kilos? Nah – better remember me as I stand before you now, young and dazzling. He giggles, extends a trembling palm. The mortified doctor shakes his hand, not knowing what else to do; it’s so sad, when he fails with a patient; and so hard to ever not fail; such a brutal business, the treatment of the soul. Nicos looks him in the eye. You’ve really helped me, doctor, you know? You were always there for me and for this I’ll always be grateful.
Are those tears in the poor boy’s eyes? The doctor feels a sudden helpless need to do something, give Nicos something, anything that might help. He writes him a prescription for some new generation antipsychotic, one without so many of the dreadful side effects, and as he gives it to him, he adds, Just make sure you don’t take more than two at a time; 4mg of this stuff can cause cardiac arrest. There’s a shadow of a wink that passes between them at that moment, a silent understanding. Nicos knows the true meaning of his warning and appreciates it.
As he gets up to see him out – why the agitation? what will he do with the half-hour before the next patient? brood, most likely – the kind Dr. Siòn decides to give him a last-minute farewell present: they’re passing through the living room, and he pulls a thin, leather-bound volume from a shelf and offers it to Nicos. It’s Xenophon’s Anabasis, his own personal copy, with his notes on the margins.
Nicos takes the book, leafs through the yellowed rough pages, but hands it back to him. It’s too valuable a present; he’d never be able to return it or the gesture. And besides he has no time for other people’s adventures, no matter how illustrious or thought-provoking; he has his own stratagem of hopelessness to devise.
She’s agreed to meet him on neutral ground, at the upper floor of a quaint patisserie downtown, haunt of middle-aged poets and literati; he chose it for the quiet, but when he arrives there’s no one else up there and the ceiling’s too low and it’s a bit depressing. Too late for second thoughts, though: she doesn’t have a cell phone. Guess it would violate the Scope and the rules of sorcery, he thinks bitterly.
It was out of the question that he go to her; not yet, at least. Nicos has been bracing himself for his second visit – which he plans to make his last – but until then he can’t even bear to think about the cloistered, malevolent place; he believes to even think about it is to invite it, as with the devil. It is a place of darkness, a sort of black hole, and he doesn’t want to get sucked by it before he’s had the time to prepare.
She arrives as he is trying to swallow the first morsel of a rather breadlike chocolate pudding he’s ordered out of politeness; she seems very tall in the low-ceilinged room, and very dark – a witch conjured from storybooks and dusty attics, a creature made up to scare the children into eating their supper. Her smile looks genuine enough and she is graceful and pretty; however, a person who’s been known to bend the structure of reality (be it moral or physical) is always a terrible one; it feels like having coffee and cakes with a pederast or a necrophile. Nicos wishes he didn’t have to spend his limited time in the company of this perverted woman, but he doesn’t have a choice.
You don’t have to do this, you know, says Persephone.
He has been talking for nearly an hour, uninterrupted, during which time she’s put away two chocolate éclairs, a slab of coffee cake and two capuccinos with four sugars each; she’s also smoked all the cigarettes in her silver case and is now bumming, shamelessly. Nicos is impressed; her supernatural powers must somehow extend to her metabolism and circulatory system, for she’s thin as a reed and healthy-looking.
He’s been explaining his plan in a rush because he’s afraid that she might correct him, or that he may lose heart himself. It’s outrageous and he knows it; it’s pathetic and desperate and totally pointless. Yet it is his plan and he’ll carry it out, if only to prove that there’s still some strength in him, some power; that he won’t be cut off like a weak malodorous flower, that he’ll go out biting and tearing and destroying.
But Persephone wipes her lips with a paper napkin and says, It’s just a thought, but maybe you should relax, let go.
What’re you talking about? Nicos is furious. Are you out of your mind? How am I supposed to let go? You were the one who told me to think about it, you forced me to think about it with all that shit about one plus minus one – and now you’re telling me to relax?
I never forced you to do anything and I’m not forcing you now. I just want to help you feel calm in the face of death.
Well, screw calm! I want some action, I wanna do something! Another day in that hospital and I’m gonna lose it – you don’t know what it’s like –
She raises a chocolate-smeared hand, notices the brown spots and quickly licks them off. What I do and don’t know, you’re in no place to imagine, Nicoláki –
I’m sorry, he begins to say, lighting a cigarette.
It’s okay. I’m not mad at you, it’s only natural that you should be angry. All I’m saying is that this thing you’re planning, this – scheme? It may be redundant.
Redundant how? What do you mean?
It’s just that this world you’re describing, with one minor modification, may already exist. It could exist right now, as we speak.
I wouldn’t call it minor, this modification. And I don’t care if it does exist – I want to create it myself, to make sure there’s no screwups, no chance of things not going as planned; as they should’ve gone in the first place, that is, and spared us the fucking trouble. His face is a map of pain, each disappointment and defeat showing like invisible little islands, agonized steps on the pathway that leads to lonely death. Persephone feels a compassion that has nothing magical about it – it’s just the motherly fear and pity a younger man inspires in any woman, some to their gain and others to their loss. She wishes to protect him but there’s simply nothing she can do, there is no remedy for one who has been left unprotected for so long; no bargaining with time and fate can save him, he is lost; she can only help him become ever more so, vanish, like the mistake he believes he is.
Nico, you know I’ll help you get there if that’s what you really want. Just let me give you one tiny piece of advice: sometimes things that have happened in one known direction of the Scope show an inexplicable tendency to happen in other directions as well. The varying realities are like the different people on this Earth – they may seem different, but there are invisible affinities connecting them.
So what’re you saying? That I can’t do it? That’s it? I’m so fucking hopeless that I can’t make it even by magic?
Oh no, she thinks. He’s angry again. No, of course I’m not saying that; and it’s not magic, Nico, it’s nature. And by nature’s laws, chances are you will succeed. The human genome is an infinity of its own. The odds that the same person, with the exact same genes and personality be created again, and made to lead an exactly same life –
I’ve thought about all that, he cuts in, impatient. What I need to know is whether this... this traveling through the Scope or whatnot will disturb the present.
Disturb – ? What do you mean?
His knees are jerking up and down; he looks ready to explode. This! he says, almost shouting, showing the empty tables around them. All of it! Will it be safe? Will life continue as it is, will my folks and Zoì and everybody else be okay?
Persephone can’t help laughing. This is absurd! Who does he think he is, that the whole universe – but no, she can’t tell him that. Instead, she reaches out her hand and lets it rest softly on his knee, channeling a soothing spell that will help control his rage. They’ll be fine, my darling Nico – why shouldn’t they? The world as you know it will go on, and whether it flourishes or destroys itself will have nothing whatsoever to do with you. I just want you to think about it, because once you leave there won’t be a way to come back. In that world, which you wish to enter, your time hasn’t existed yet in any branch of the Scope, and it will be impossible even for my older self to send you to a place as hard to determine as the possibilities of its substance are many. And maybe you’re bound to this world; you don’t want to leave it being a stranger among strangers, without your mo –
No. He won’t let her say the word ‘mother ’, his eyes glitter even at the sound of the first syllable. No – I don’t. I mean, I don’t care. I’ll do it. I just wanted to make sure that everything... that it’s gonna be all right. And if you don’t mind, I’d like to pay you up front. Is it okay if I give you the money now?
He fumbles in his pocket, takes out a wad of euros, his fingers are shaking, the cigarette hanging from the corner of his mouth sends the smoke directly to his eye and he blinks, a tear rolls, Persephone takes the money he shoves in her face, it’s too much, probably three or four times what she would charge him, but it can’t be helped, he’s already up and calling for the waiter and wrestling with his parka and then he’s off.
Timon Koutsoúvelos, proud junior partner in his uncle’s firm and personally in charge of the Sunflower account, is an ingratiatingly sweet and gentle man. Just over thirty, he has the ash blonde hair and milky complexion and light blue eyes that, in Greece, imply either having Slavic, Vlach, or Sephardic roots, or being the product of understandable hanky-panky committed during the German occupation. He has a strong manly jawline, he’s tall and pleasantly muscular and his voice is deep and mellifluous. Nicos finds it difficult to follow the technicalities. People with such good looks shouldn’t go to waste, he thinks to himself, buried under documents and court orders. He’s reminded of the other legal beauty, Alexis’s boyfriend. What was the kid’s name? Tassos? No – it was Nassos, Nassos from Athanássios, meaning immortal. Good looks are immortal indeed, he muses absent-mindedly; see how they manage to inspire awe and admiration through the ages; all the songs and the books and the statues and the films and the buildings have been created because of someone beautiful whom their creators adored, who inspired them and filled them with dreams (some dry, some wet). If he weren’t a dying man, he might ask the inspiring Mr. Koutsoúvelos out for a drink; he’s always been partial to blond men. But he knows it’s a ridiculous notion; if he weren’t sick he wouldn’t be here in the first place – and sweet Timon notwithstanding, he doesn’t like being here, talking about his will. It’s too depressing, bidding your life farewell and still having to worry about the bureaucracy of death.
The lawyer is assuring him for the tenth time that any document composed and signed today, in the presence of two witnesses – the firm’s paralegals will do just fine – will be legally binding and should cause him no worries as regards to relatives and potential disclaimers. Nicos knows this already, and is bored; why are they boring, the pretty men? Couldn’t the air-conditioning malfunction, making the heat unbearable, so that Mr. Koutsoúvelos would be forced to take off his jacket and reveal the delectable pectorals throbbing with beauty and life underneath his shirt? A sight for sore eyes.
It’s okay, no one’s gonna object to anything, he says. His parents are only children, and besides he’s not going to screw them; the will he’s dictated states clearly that any property of his apart from the Sunflower should be bequeathed to them. It’s Zoì he’s thinking of, and fearing that a face-to-face discussion about her owning the place will end in tears and fainting fits, he’s decided to name her as legal holder of his only means of livelihood, to which she’s contributed so much of her love and care. It’s only fair, and to make sure that he won’t be causing her any trouble – Mr. Koutsoúvelos has mentioned an alarming sum which must be paid as inheritance tax – he plans to find out her bank account number by asking the manager of the National Bank of Exárhia (an old friend of his father’s) and to deposit the necessary money.
We’re all set to go then, says Timon, giving him an overenthusiastic thumbs-up and pushing the document to his side of the desk. Am I seeing things, or did he draw his hand back too quickly, so that I won’t touch him? wonders Nicos. He looks up; Mr. Koutsoúvelos is smiling his Crest-commercial smile, but his wide milky brow is spotted with tiny beads of perspiration. Sweating, are we, big boy? he thinks, maliciously. Maybe you were surprised to hear a woman’s name as an heir, maybe you thought it’d be a man, sure thing, just look at the poor fucker, he’s so thin and pale and definitely gay it’s no wonder he’s drawing a will, the AIDS is eating him up like acid, I just hope it’s okay that I’m sitting here with him in a closed space, breathing in the virus, nah, it’s nothing, I’ll just open the window as soon as he goes, the fresh air’ll be nice.
Naturally, it’s just the voice of conscience, teasing, torturing. But then some of the droplets gather, a shiny trickle of sweat runs down Timon’s temple and malice breeds instant awareness in Nicos’s mind. I’m not going to die, you yuppie bimbo. And in the legal sense of the word, he really won’t – he’ll just disappear, and God knows how long it will take for him to be pronounced deceased; and where would that leave Zoì in the meantime? So Nicos signs quickly and then crosses his legs and says, Also, I’d like to appoint my heir as sole custodian and beneficiary of the Sunflower, with power of attorney over it.
Mr. Koutsoúvelos titters and picks up the phone to make another call.
Up yours, handsome. I’m gonna make you sweat.
Nicos is in a hurry. The labyrinthine market of Monastiráki is, as usual, filled with a sea of idle shoppers, passers-by and salesmen a bit too eager for comfort (Come in, kýrie, handcrafted boots at 50 euros – we’re giving them away). Nicos doesn’t want handcrafted boots, he wants time, and time he has not. These days reality plays like a conked-out VCR – he either feels the weightlessness of arrested existence, or finds himself living in panicky fast-forward, the precious seconds slipping away, each moment not spent on the Plan a moment of cheating death for nothing.
He’s looking for a tiny shop that was salvaged from the uprooting of the flea market, the youssouroúm, a few years ago: a sort of decadent boutique, specializing in second-hand vintage clothing. He’s been there a few times, mostly to buy garish shirts and platforms to wear to costume parties; but now that he really, desperately needs it, it’s nowhere to be found. He was sure it was on Hephaestus Way, but it appears to have vanished. Despite the cold he’s sweating, Where is it, he mumbles, the stinking fucking shithole, my stomach hurts Jesus fucking Christ I’m gonna fall apart right here on the cobblestone and the fucking homeless will steal my wallet and go through my pockets and no one’s gonna call for an ambulance – but suddenly, lo and behold, there it is, a narrow patch of multicolour hell right before the alleyway that leads to Abyssinia Square. He goes in and loses himself among the outrageous fabrics, the obsolete patterns. Ah, the allure of involuntary kitsch; the bad taste like an evil soul, that keeps returning to life to be cleansed of its sins, reincarnated as retro fashion, vile, horrific, wonderful. With an alarming greed that makes the shop owner grin with delight, Nicos grabs from the racks enough clothes to fill a trunk: bell-bottom jeans and espadrilles and psychedelic shirts and even the lime-green, wide-lapelled 100% polyester suit he was sure no one would ever buy. Nicos finds this complusive shopping heavenly – it’s so unreal and yet so very real; in a couple of days he’ll be living in the Seventies. So he grabs and grabs and grabs – Persephone’s warned him that clothes already existing at the time won’t be making the leap through the Scope – and once he pauses, puzzled; he’s holding a wonderful baby-blue T-shirt with the logo of the ’72 blood-spattered Munich Olympics. Does he dare go around wearing such a provocative thing, a tongue-in-cheek message from the future? What the hell, he thinks, and takes it.
Next he attacks the coin collectors’ shops, buying banknotes printed in 1971, ones on which the date has faded – he’s going to need some pocket money. The old, wrinkled drachmas fascinate him, and he tries not to laugh at the shop owners’ shock when they see him fold them up in tidy wads and tuck them in his pocket (the sacrilege!) But this is going to be his real money, to buy things with, and the thought that it will look crumpled and tired at a time which precedes their actual creation boggles his mind sweetly, like too much pot. As he strolls along Hadrien Road, carrying his heavy, bulging bags and with an awfully expensive 4500 drachmas in his pocket, he comes upon a rummage sale of old books, amongst which he finds a 1968 Athens tourist guide, and a volume entitled ‘Our credos ’, containing the public speeches and ludicrous private musings of dictator Papadopoulos. He is absolutely thrilled.
He takes a taxi to Exárhia, drops the bags at his apartment and proceeds on foot to Omónia Square, where most of the pawn shops dealing in jewellery and gold are to be found. Living in the past may turn out to be expensive, and there’s no way he’ll be getting a job; also, he can’t tell how much time the Plan is going to take him. So, after an additional bleeding at the bank – the tellers with a frozen smile, the people in the line profoundly envious – he goes to a claustrophobic mezzanine and buys a half-kilo gold bullion cast in 1982, and three strings of artificially grown pearls. He’ll be looking at the gold bar for hours, touching it, caressing it, marveling at its beauty.
Last but not least, late at night, when their poor lot stand shivering on the pavement or lie on spread-out paper boxes and newspapers, huddled in the relative warmth of doorways, he finds a couple of junkies who know him – they see each other all the time, and Nicos always gives them spare change for cigarettes and smack –, he buys them beer and a carton of Marlboros from the kiosk, and then pays them to get him as many methadone pills as possible. He knows it’s a risk, but he doesn’t plan on going back in time with a growing cancer and armed with aspirin alone.
Then comes the day which is to be his last before the trip; he tries to think of it as a trip, make a joke of it, because whenever he realizes that this change is going to be as irreversible as death he feels a surge of panic.
He tries to avoid getting caught up in meaningless poignancy, to make this just another day, if one dedicated to goodbyes; he finds out it’s nearly impossible.
The first and sharpest thorn to be swallowed is telling Zoì. Nicos sits in an armchair, hunched above the tea with honey she’s prepared him and watches her as she bustles around the Sunflower, trying to hide her sadness behind a front of unprecedented hostility towards the waitresses; Margarita, her imaginary sworn enemy, looks positively terrified.
Nicos feels responsible and wretched – as much as if he’d single-handedly created and spread around the world the HIV. Zoì has been calling him every day if he’s five minutes late; she drops by almost every night to make sure he gets enough food and sleep or that he hasn’t fainted or bled to death or shot himself with the gun he might have got from the Kalashnikov-dealing Albanians. But she’s equally fretful when he’s hanging around at the Sunflower: she makes him drink vats of tea and camomile and obnoxious ditanny (yuck!), she bickers with the DJ because she believes the music is too loud and it bothers him, and she glares at the customers whenever they laugh or scream or make too much noise talking to each other – stating with her general abruptness that she wishes she could kick their disrespectful asses out and turn the Sunflower into one big private hospital room for him to convalesce in.
Although he finds this fussing unnecessary and mildly embarrassing, Nicos has come to expect it, to depend on it, and the idea that come tommorow he’ll have to do without it is debilitating – and the talk he plans on having with her will only make matters worse; there are tears to be expected, on both sides maybe; but talk to her he must – he owes her as much, he can’t just disappear.
She runs to him the moment she sees him looking at her.
Nicolì mou?? A hushed, panicky voice. Is everything okay? You alright? You want me to call the doctor?
I’m fine, Zoìtsa, please, sit down. There’s a matter I want to discuss.
She sits in the armchair next to him, but on the very edge of the cushion, as though preparing to spring to her feet at the slightest sign of weakness and revive him, rescue him. She’s holding a dust cloth, wringing it unconsciously, hard, all the time.
I wanted to tell you that I’m leaving. I’ll be gone for at least –
Oh no. Her lower lip twitches. Oh God, no, Nicolì, my boy, no –
He takes her hand, makes her drop the dust cloth, presses tight, to show he’s still strong, alive. Shhh, please don’t make a scene. I’m okay. Really. It hasn’t... spread, if that’s what you’re thinking. The doctors say I’ve been showing an impressive response to the drugs. So I was thinking –
What do they know, the doctors? Oh, Nico –
I was thinking of taking a trip to Áyion Óros. This silences Zoì, as it strikes on a level of principle; she’s too religious to admit that only a foolish, desperate man would risk a trip to Mount Athos when he’s evidently at death’s door. She won’t cry, but she won’t give up either – her stubbornness has merely shifted its focus; now she doesn’t want to let him go.
But why now, Nico, my precious? Wouldn’t it better if you stayed, and went to see the doctors, and took your pills, and did your radiothe-ra-therapies, eh? And I can come and see you like I do, and cook for you – ? It’s cold on the Áyion Óros, my little bird, and you’re all bone and no meat, what with all the pizzas and the souvlákia, and you smoke too much –
I’ll be fine. Don’t worry. Besides, I’ve always wanted to go, they say some of the monasteries you just have to see before you die (wrong word, idiot! ) and... and the weather’s not an issue, they have central heating for the guests, and the food will be even healthier than the stuff you get here – they got their own goats, you see, and their own milk and eggs –
They don’t have goats; no female animals – it’s a temptation.
This gives him a laughing fit; the look on her face, stern as a judge’s, as she stated the danger of monkish bestiality was priceless; soon she’s infected too and laughing with him, the gloom has been dispelled. He’s holding his sides, he’s become breathless from laughter.
Nico, Nico – seriously. You sure you wanna go all the way to Áyion Óros? I mean, there’s this priest I know in Tavros –
No. I’ve got to go. I dreamt about it.
Pah – dreams. I dream all the time that I look like Giselle. What good are dreams, only the fools and the atheicists believe in them. Suddenly, she has an associative moment. Whatever happened with Persephone? she asks.
Nicos’s echoes of laughter subside at once. Who’s that?
You know – the gypsy. Did you call her? What’d she tell you?
Oh, her. Not much; some nonsense about eating lots of pomegranates.
Too bad. But you can’t trust their folk anyways. Last time I went to see her, she told me about this handsome man I’m supposed to meet, who will change my life. And she said I was gonna meet him at Omónia! Can you believe it? The man of my dreams at Omónia, where all the heroin addicts and the homeless hang out!
Ah, forget about her. That’s why I thought about going to Athos – at least there they got the real thing, don’t they?
And when are you planning to go?
Pause. Deep breath. I’m leaving tomorrow.
Tomorrow? She picks up the dust cloth, starts to wring it again. So soon?
Zoìtsa my love, please, try to understand. I have to go. It’s... it’s imperative for my health that I... I communicate with God, and besides... (this should do the trick)
I’ve taken a táma. Checkmate. Zoì can’t fight a sacred vow. Now she just has to accept that he’s going.
You promise you’ll be okay? You promise you’ll be coming home soon? (But there are other ways to hurt him – her eyes, her big, devoted eyes).
Yes. I promise. And in the meantime, I want you to take care of the Sunflower. I’ve already spoken with – but he decides not to tell her about the lawyer. She’s gonna put two and two together. It’s not even a lie, this place belongs to her anyway; she’ll just have to find out about the transaction when he’s been gone for some time, when she’ll begin to worry, and his parents too will worry, they might drop by to see if he’s okay, why he’s not answering the phone, did his cell phone get stolen, did he lose it, did he change his number? And when Zoì, equally clueless, tells them about the trip to Áyion Óros they’ll know he’d been lying, the postcards, everything, all of it lies, they’ll go to the police, Zoì and mom will be crying, and then at some point they’ll call his lawyer and he’ll tell them about the will and the grant document, and by then they’ll be so wrecked with irrational guilt and pain that they won’t even care, and he’ll be lost, unreachable, dead and buried in an unmarked grave thirty-five years ago, in another world, while in this one his loved ones will have to bury an empty coffin and –
The grief is overwhelming, it rises like nausea. He stands up. I have to go to the bathroom, he mumbles.
Zoì too is standing, her soul on springs. Nico? What’s wrong?
Nothing. It’s nothing. I think I’m having the runs.
What’d I tell you? It’s that shit you’ve been eating, it’s making you sick, but no, you don’t listen, you never listen to poor Zoì. Go, go, I’ll make you some more tea – ah, you’ll be the death of me, you dumb rich kid.
But Nicos can’t hear her; locked inside the toilet, his fist as a gag, he shakes and sobs, shakes and sobs.
Dinner at his parents’ proves to be a lesser ordeal; they have each other, they are loved and that makes them safe, a smaller cause for worries. His mother comments once on his hesitance with the chicken bhuna – he’s been taking the AZT, and spices upset his stomach – but he says it’s just some indigestion he’s been having lately. Too much smoking, probably, or vitamin deficiency; that’s it, it’s vitamin C deficiency, a dentist friend of his (whom he’s just invented) has told him all about bleeding gums and heartburn. There are no traditional Greek reprimands about neglecting his health; both his parents are still at two packs a day, so that’s that.
While his mother goes outside to change the kitty litter – Did you get a cat? Oh, it’s been around for a while. What do you call it? The Cat – Nicos drops a hint about some trip to the Far East, with a casual remark about ‘soul-searching’.
I didn’t know you’d lost your soul, his father says. But forgive me for joking – I didn’t mean it. Of course you may want to search your soul in the Far East.
(That’s the problem with you two. You’re so liberal, it’s frustrating. Raise your eyebrow, patronize me, mock me for this made-up, stupid trip! Ah – it’s useless. Better wait and tell mom).
But his mother is equally matter-of-fact. She just says, That’s lovely, and then, as if he’d find the question horribly tactless, she adds, Where to, exactly?
Nicos gives up; they won’t a throw fit anyhow, it was stupid of him to hope. They’ll never extract an outburst from him, they’ll never pressure him, and for that reason he’ll never be able to rely on them to baby him in his final hours. If you were different, he thinks, I wouldn’t have to do this. But he can’t afford to hold grudges; this is the last time he’s ever going to see them. So he begins to narrate his elaborate, needless concoction.
He’s going to Kathmandu; he’s read that life in Nepal is outrageously cheap – for a mere 100 euros a month he’ll be living in a four-room cottage with hired help, a personal guide and a cook.
You cost me far more than that, dad says to mom.
And I’m completely useless as a guide, she replies.
They giggle and kiss.
(Great. Hello! Invisible dying son!) Won’t they even ask him for details? Aren’t they worried that their only child is going to such a faraway place? Don’t they wanna know why? Obviously, they don’t; and it’s not because they don’t care. It’s precisely because they do care, and love him immensely, that they live in a universe where he could never come to any serious physical harm, where the very concept of his being terminally ill is plainly unthinkable – yet the lack of selfish nagging can make love seem irrelevant; he wishes they were two middle-aged versions of Zoì.
Finally, to avoid a game of Scrabble or a DVD they’re bound to propose any moment now, he offers the specifics of the lie himself: he’s flying to Dubai on Emirates Airlines the day after tomorrow, and from there he’s taking a connect flight to Kathmandu, on the Royal Nepal Airways. He even gives them the exact times (which he got on the Internet; his parents are computer geeks and they might find out).
How long are you planning to stay? asks his mother, passing him a gigantic slab of Cadbury with dried fruit and nuts. Nicos breaks off a chunk.
Oh, I don’t know, he says, deliberately vague. They don’t bite. Two months, maybe three... it depends.
What about the Sunflower? his father asks. (At last! A trace of concern!)
Zoì can manage without me; she does anyway. She’s the heart of the business.
Wonderful girl, says mom. You’re really lucky.
Yeah, you should bring her to dinner sometime. She’s a ton of laughs.
Yanni! That’s an awful thing to say!
What? What’d I say? I said she’s fun to be with!
You made it sound condescending, like she’s some sort of peasant.
Now who’s being condescending?
I didn’t mean to – oh, screw you, you right-wing pig!
Upper-middle class pussy!
(Giggle. Snort. Kiss).
You know we don’t make that kind of discrimination, don’t you, Nicolì?
Yes, mom, I know. (You taught me to respect people and now I’m dying. No good deed goes unpunished). I don’t know if I’m gonna get any reception, it’s way up there, but I’ll send you postcards.
That’s wonderful! It’s been ages since we got any!
In fact he’s already written them, ten postcards from Nepal bought on e-bay, and he’s also paid for use of a P.O. Box in Kathmandu for two years. A student at Tribhuvan University, whom he met in a chat room has agreed to mail the postcards, one or two every three months, for 300 dollars he’s wired him along with the cards. Nicos hopes the kid will keep his end of the deal, although judging from the pecking and the drooling going on on the couch he needn’t worry. Lucky the parents who can still make out despite their son’s misery.
That’s settled then, says dad, sucking on a piece of chocolate so big, it sticks out of his mouth. He’s always had that annoying habit, eating chocolate like it was chewing tobacco. You just make sure you take some coke when the plane lands – the altitude’ll screw up your blood oxygen level or something.
Yanni! Don’t encourage our son to take drugs! Nico, my love, don’t listen to your idiot of a father – he’s just jealous he can’t come with you. You’d probably like that, you dirty old man, wouldn’t you, to be waited on hand and foot by naked young Nepalis, snorting coke all the time?
You bet! (Snort-snort. Giggle. Kiss).
The chocolate is burning a hole in Nicos’s stomach; either it’s the AZT or he’s losing his sweet tooth. He rushes upstairs, in case he throws up audibly. But his parents remain on the couch, snuggling and talking in baby voices. He feels so terribly alone: a ghost child, owner of a dead dog, trespassing on the land of two horny sixty year-olds, where The Cat now roams free. It was a mistake, this last visit, his hopes for a breakdown or a confrontation. They’d never object to anything – any adventure seems feasible to them, any daring trip to a secluded part of the world. They’ve had their own share of adventure; they live in their own secluded world.
He spends most of the night reading the obsolete tourist guide, picking up stuff that may come in handy: bus routes, hotels, places to eat, cinemas; the book certainly existed in 1970, so he must learn as much as he can because he’ll be leaving it. Leafing through the chapter ‘Celebrations and Festivities’ he’s almost tempted to ask Persephone that he return to the springtime – so that he could enjoy up-close the unbelievably camp annual march in honour of the April Revolution, during which the Panathenaic Stadium was converted to a Mardi Gras with huge Styrofoam statues of the Ancient Greek pantheon and young people dressed in chlamydes and carrying cardboard spears and swords and shields and huge placards bearing the resurrecting phoenix, the Colonels’ junta’s emblem. However, he knows it’s impossible; the success of his mission lies between the end of August and the first ten days of September – and he’s not so sure he’s gonna make it for another four months.
His eyes are tired and he has a headache, but he’s too excited to sleep; he’d rather stay up all night, as when preparing for an airplane trip. Though not strictly phobic, Nicos has never got used to flying; he still believes it is unnatural that such a huge, heavy thing should be levitating miles above the safety of the Earth; men aren’t supposed to fly, the air is a hostile, forbidding territory; he almost thinks it’s a sort of hubris, this defiance of gravity; so, whenever he’s had to take long trips – the one to New York comes to mind as particularly dreadful – he usually stays up, exhausting himself, so that a shot of gin just before boarding time puts him to sleep for hours. Let the damn magical thing crash if it has to; he’ll be lost in dreamland. Of course, this is an altogether different matter: this trip will take not one second, and it’s perfectly safe. But still he feels a not entirely disagreeable unease about it. According to the misleading information he’s spread, tomorrow he could be flying to Thessaloníki, Berlin, or Dubai. If he were indeed on an airplane and it crashed, he would be killed instantly, leaving hardly any trace of his mortal flesh; he would become a thought, a memory, an immaterial vagueness. Yet the three pomegranate seeds he’s going to swallow in a few hours will have an even more annihilating effect; no vestige of his ever having existed will survive – not even a tooth or a fingernail or bloody ashes. He’s going to become a figment of his own imagination, suspended for a few short months or weeks in a state of vivid limbo, and then he’ll vanish amid the layers of the Scope, as non-existent as a character in a book. The thought keeps him awake.
At daybreak, swaddled in his bathrobe, he sits in the moist deck chair out on the balcony and has a last smoke, looking at the sleepy Exárhia Square. It’s a lucky thing that his neighbourhood hasn’t changed much over the last thirty years – he’d miss it terribly. He’s shaking a little from the cold, or maybe it’s the emotion. Relax, silly, he says to himself. Tomorrow night you’ll be drinking red vermouth right here, listening to a 331/3 LP of Let It Bleed. It’s gonna be alright.
A tear escapes nevertheless. The cigarette goes out.
He goes back inside, shivering, and calls for a cab.
A very thin and very pale young man sits on a bench in Sýntagma Square. The heat is oppressive, but every now and then the sycamores standing tall on both sides of the square bend their branches to the soft late-summer breeze, covering his body with quivery leaf patterns. He doesn’t seem to mind the glaring sun, nor does he notice the commotion at the open-air coffee house, the nearby fountain, the passers-by with their squeaking children. The man appears to be sleeping. Whoever looks at him thinks he must be a foreigner, a tourist; the sunglasses shielding his closed eyes are blue-tinted and of a quite unusual design; also, he has his arms wrapped tightly around a sort of carryall like the ones issued by the army, only his is a lurid red; the leather sandals on his feet, however, are the revealing touch: no one but an unwashed, penniless tourist would be sleeping in a public place in broad daylight with his dirty feet showing.
Nicos twitches slightly, his eyelids flutter; a ray of light came on too strong, but it’s not enough to disturb his sweet slumber.
He is indeed a foreigner and at the same time he isn’t.
It is Sunday August the 30th 1970.
Nicos is filled with an indescribable, pure and fiery happiness, a feeling he thought was available only to fictional characters. Born and raised in an era of demystification, he had always believed certain extremes of the heart to be as impossible as the things supposedly causing them: extreme love or fear or sorrow were on the same level with God, or Hell – they didn’t quite exist. In the past couple of months he’s been living in one of these extremes, in the company of the Grim Reaper, yet his soul still refused to believe in the existence of the negative’s negative, of a life of flawless bliss. But the first two hours he’s spent in this distant world have been like a peek at God’s face, so wonderful that his heart aches with regret; why wasn’t he born ten or twenty years earlier? It is as though people back then – now – had been seeing – are seeing – the first film of a double feature, and the second film, the one he caught, was the boring one, the uninspiring.
The first thing he noticed when he found himself standing on the dirt road at the top of Výronas, was the strangeness of the air; it burned his sinuses, opening up his nicotine-saturated lungs as if containing too much oxygen. Then it hit him; it did contain too much oxygen. The Seventies Athens didn’t suffer from the same amount of smog, and the difference made him literally dizzy. He walked towards Pangráti lightheaded, and everywhere he looked there was a wonder happening.
The cars, so few, so strange – postwar American giants some of them; people’s clothes, their shoes, the five-and-dimes, the coal depots selling wine in bulk; a girl with ponytails running to a kiosk to make a phone call; a magazine cover with Elvis’s surreally-coloured face, the King alive and kicking; billboards and posters advertising soft drinks and snacks and beers he’s never consumed; strollers, babies, babies, so many babies, as if sterility has since struck the nation; people sitting out on the street, in makeshift living rooms of old wooden chairs and melamine tables, to escape the inferno of their air-conditionless homes, gathered around black-and-white TV’s, the wives and mother-in-laws bringing Tupperware bowls of meatballs and vine leaves stuffed with rice; a couple of teenagers with splendid skintight bell-bottomed jeans, their heads a mass of matted hair like an Old English sheepdog’s, Beatlákia they used to call them, little Beatles, standing in a barbershop and begging the barber – father of one of the two – to give them some pocket money; ‘No!’ the burly man shouts, ‘Forget it! First you sit down and lemme give you a haircut! Running around like a hippie, a disgrace to your family!’ and Phtt! he spits on the floor, and in the meantime his son’s friend has tiptoed to the till behind his back, and the barber caught him red-handed and starts to chase them, brandishing his scissors, and the kids come out running and laughing and he steps on his spit and slips and falls and curses his son, screaming ‘May you never live to see another year! ’ And all these things, as accurate and vivid as the scenery of an expensive Hollywood re-creation, are tangible, real: an old-time Greece, picturesque and sad, an ageing transvestite in a world of juicy young girls, stumbling along, haunted by its impotent glorious past and the craving for an impossible future.
This is a miracle, Nicos kept thinking, his heart beating faster and faster. I’ve been given a chance that no mortal ever had, I stand outside the boundaries of time, beyond life and beyond death. As he approached the centre of Athens, dazed and paranoid, he began to view himself in this otherworldly, heroic light. Perhaps this gift was meant as part of a greater mission, one of altering the destinies of all people; he might be holder of the key that would unlock the cabinet of monsters, expose them and help vanquish them in time: warn the medical world about the dangers of this new, unknown, ferocious virus; avert the Challenger and the Chernobyl tragedies, the murder of John Lennon and the catastrophic marriage of Lady Spencer to Prince Charles; tell the students of the Polytechnic School to be patient, the Colonels’ junta will crumble in less than four years’ time, so stay away from military tanks and keep a cool head, and you, my brothers Cypriots, beware, beware of bloodthirsty Denktash, and please, dear Ms. Iris Murdoch, please do your crosswords every day so that your mind may never go soft with Alzheimer’s, and could someone please tell people everywhere that no good will ever come from tearing at each other’s throats, I know it sounds silly but trust me, the future is wonderful as much as it is gruesome, so could we please find a way somehow to make it a little less gruesome?
By the time he reached Sýntagma Square his mind was short-circuiting from so much hope and responsibility, the eyes couldn’t stand any more unreality. He staggered to a bench and collapsed, enveloped at once in sweet sunshine and sleep.
At seven o’clock Nicos is roused by a persistent beeping sound that makes his left hip vibrate; an unseen little girl – the sun has blinded him – screams, Mamà, mamà! That man over there has a bird in his bag, listen, mamà! He unclenches one arm, numb from gripping the carryall, and finds the cell phone ringing in his pocket, set to wake him up at 7 a.m today in case he overslept; for some reason the phone has got the time mixed up – but how could it not? It’s mind-boggling; twelve hours ago he was in the future, a part of which now takes care to remind him that he’s in the past. He shuts the thing off, after habitually checking to see if he’s got any texts or voicemail (ridiculous) and slouches again, relaxing, letting the slowly setting sun warm him to the bone.
This is another miracle, he thinks, even though scarcely appreciated; it’s amazing that a thing so faraway can touch me. His grandfather, who, during his eighteen months of rubbing elbows with exiled members of the Greek intelligentsia had become an amateur physicist, biologist and philosopher, was hugely impressed by this ball of ever-burning fire, often singing its praises to the young Nicolì. It’s to the sun that we owe our existence, he used to say. It is he that fed the first living organisms with light, and through their photosynthesis the Earth’s atmosphere was created and filled with precious oxygen. If there ever were a god to worship, it should be Helios.
So, now Nicos rests, bathed in the light, enjoying the caresses of this god who is thirty years younger and all the more powerful. Everything’s younger, newer, fresher and more alive, and – and then he realizes the self-evident. Grandpa Nicos; who died in his sleep a week before his 70th birthday, peacefully as an angel folding his wings. The eight-year old Nicos had been stricken with an inconsolable stubborn childish mourning, lying on grampa’s bed and crying himself to sleep every single night for two months; eventually his parents had to lock the door.
He had forgotten about this period of unbearable grief, he had outgrown the helpless sobbing boy’s devotion as time marched on, bringing new pleasures and new miseries, until all that remained of grandpa were the photos, the reconstructed memories, and the stories exchanged with mom and dad in their more sentimental moments, narratives casual and gently detached, as though concerning a once favourite perfume that was discontinued.
Nicos, wide awake now, feels the pricking of this cobwebby pain; and the pain grows and grows and brings tears to his eyes. For the living can hurt us like the dead never could; grandpa is alive, but Nicos can’t sit on his lap; he can’t be told wonderful tales about the sun.
Night falls, blowing wisps of sadness into Nicos’s heart. Only children and people dying or clinically depressed fear the dark for what it truly signifies, only they can acknowledge the terror, the miniature extinction – and for this they cling to life a bit more, one measly hour before bedtime, another drink, and another, and another.
Lately, the Sunflower offered the ideal excuse, the perfect escape; never mind the scowling Zoì – as long as there were people around him talking, laughing, drinking and not yawning yet, he could stay close to them and be protected, the weakest member of a nomadic race crouching next to the fire, safe from the relentless predator till the last embers die out and sleep comes over him.
But as he’s been told by its previous owners, the Sunflower will be a deteriorating billiard joint for the next twenty-nine years. And even if he did go to the Square, it would be as pointless as a dog’s sniffing around a house that hasn’t been built, looking for the loving company of an unborn master; no familiar faces and people to give free tequila shots to, no Zoì and no security from sudden pain or faintness because in this world he doesn’t officially exist, he hasn’t any health insurance or even a valid identity card. If he goes to a hotel now he won’t be able to sleep, he’ll just roll over and play dead and bark with despair – Hector in the Underworld.
And then he notices the throng walking through Sýntagma Square, crossing the street, jaywalking from one side of Hermoù Road to the other, oblivious of the authoritarian regime, avid to please their nightly urges. Sweet are the hours of darkness to the Greek. With renewed hope, Nicos picks up the carryall and starts to walk towards the busy alleys of the Pláka.
Around the ruins of the Theatre of Dionysus, at the open-air cinema Zephyrus, he catches a screening of Doctor Zhivago. He’s seen it once before on video, but this is an altogether grander pleasure: it’s thrilling to see this film as something relatively recent, to think that while he munches on roasted peanuts somewhere in the world Omar Sharif enjoys a game of bridge, young and stunning. Zhivago must have been a huge success in Grecce, where doomed romances are always popular – the cinema is packed; it’s also a hit permissible by the junta’s censorship, if not one hailed as a triumph for its depiction of the cruel Bolsheviks and their destructive influence. Nicos, however, relishes the film as pure, 100% schmaltz, a weepy love story, and weep he does, profusely, indulging his sorrow, letting it all out, feeling sorry for Lara as much as for himself. Halfway through the film he’s become drowsy from lack of sleep and too much beforehand crying; images and colours merge with the accented subtitles and he’s carried away by Maurice Jarre’s score to the music of his son Jean Michel and to that pandemoniac Equinox concert in Place Concorde on New Year’s Eve 1978, remembered as a dream of cold and shouting and alien sounds, riding on his father’s shoulders as his mother climbed onto the fountain to take a blurry photo of his tiny self, a puffy mass of black and red, they’d just bought the red woolen cap, and in its midst a terrified face, looking at the sea of screaming Parisians. When the film’s over and he stumbles towards the exit, it doesn’t seem so unreal anymore that he should be living in the Seventies. The world is what concerns us, a garment sometimes too big or too small or tailor-made, as if it were created specifically for that we may inhabit it. So it is reasonable to think that Boris Pasternak wrote a book and David Lean made it into a film and that the whole universe combined its forces, turning the Earth around and making peanuts grow on its surface so that he could go to the cinema tonight, and eat peanuts, and cry among boys with sideburns who have their arms around the waists of girls in mini skirts.
He’s walking along Panepistimíou Street towards Omónea. At the Zonar’s café – favoured by the postwar artistic elite but considered uncool by the time he was old enough to stay out – he buys a lonely takeaway dinner of chicken pie and a bottle of Tam-Tam, a Coca-Cola wannabe he’d always wanted to try because of its funny name but which is sadly too sugary and unconvincing. He munches and sips and walks, feeling more and more like the tourist he appears to the eyes of the passers-by. Everything looks so different it’s slightly depressing; gone are the familiar till yesterday metro entrances, the decorative pyramid at the centre of Korais Square, the crowds waiting in line outside the Rex, dressed up to the nines to enjoy the ‘spectacular’ show of obnoxious pop singers – infants most of them if not unborn in 1970. Up until now, Nicos believed that he had a hold on the past, both lived and learnt about from books and documentaries and stories his parents and his grandpa used to tell him; it felt like a secure thing, predictable and easy to grasp as a naive, primitive language. Now he feels as if he has forgotten every single word of this language, so that each thing happening around him is a scare, a daunting question to which he doesn’t know the answer, loose threads of what Persephone had warned him would be an undetermined flux of destinies and which he nevertheless thought would become a toy in his clever hands. The past is an unknown world, he realizes now, and one in which he must find his way treading carefully, with difficulty.
When in Omónia Square, he avoids the decent hotels like the Bángheion and turns instead to Athinàs Street; this umbilical cord, providing the ancient heart of the city – the Acropolis and the Theseum – with the sustenance of modern blood boiling on the other end, and with real blood, flowing in the morning on the cobbles of the Varvákios market as the fish are gutted and the calves’s hind legs hung on hooks, hasn’t yet undergone the polishing of post-EU economy, and is still a place of cheap taverns exuding a stench of tripe and retsina and seedy hotels that never ask their guests to produce any form of identity, as most of them are usually accompanied by one of the numerous prostitutes who are spinning their man-catching webs on the street.
Nicos is fascinated by the lumpen liveliness which he thought was merely tall tales of elderly Greek men’s romanticizing their past. ‘Agoráki, you lookin’ for company?’ shouts a fiftyish whore from the doorway of a decrepit bordello. ‘You got light, agoráki? ’ another one asks, and Nicos starts; she’s approached him from behind; he turns and sees the unlit cigarette, the filter tip dangling sensually between half-parted lips thick with maroon lipstick, the hand pressed onto a luscious hip, turning around and around the thin chain of a small black purse: a caricature, but a very pretty one. She’s giving him the eye, the cigarette is merely pretext, yet Nicos is slow to react, not because he doesn’t smoke but because of what she’s just called him: agoráki, little boy. Does that mean he still looks young and healthy, or is it a word all hookers use? For close to half a minute he stares at the woman, unable to react, until she grabs with feline grace the cigarette he forgot he was holding, lights up, gives it back to him and blowing a kiss turns and walks away. Maybe she was amused by his stunned expression, or even pleased; rare are the compliments in her profession. Nicos stands immobile for as long as his cigarette lasts, looking at the hooker’s seductive gait, trying to remember what it is he wanted to say to her; it’s something very important, something he ought to remember but which he’s somehow forgotten – a question, a piece of advice, a feeling to share? Ah, screw it. He tosses the butt and enters one of the glum little hotels.
In typical pomposity, the place – reeking of smoke, chlorine, armpits, perfume and army boots – is called Óneiron; a dream indeed. Behind the sagging counter the Master Sandman, a two-hundred-kilo man who is either standing or sitting (in what?) listens to a radio he cradles on his lap, like a pet or a baby, and sings softly to a melancholy song. He’s caught him in a moment of private passion, since the man’s eyes are closed; beauty can be poured into the most atrocious vessel.
He clears his throat and the enormous receptionist is roused from the world of music with a grumbling manatee snort. I’d like a room, says Nicos.
The beady eyes, drowned in flesh, dart here and there suspiciously. For how long? he asks, the undertone implying, And where’s your hooker?
For a month. Maybe more.
The man is visibly surprised. He turns the radio off, to negotiate without the softening effect of love songs. Look, mister, you’re welcome to move in for life if you wanna, but you gotta pay up front.
For a month?
The question must be a perplexing one. The receptionist mutters, closes his eyes, mutters some more; tries to unearth the multiplication tables from long disused crevices of his mind; if it weren’t such a bother to move, he’d go fetch a pencil and pad.
Fou-five hundred, he says. And you gotta pay now.
Nicos, quite exhausted by this time, is about to bring out the whole wad of cash, but the man’s hungry stare, following the movement of his hand, makes him think again; he inserts index and middle finger rigidly and removes one of the 500-bills on the outside; better pick his pockets himself than have them picked by some nimble-fingered tramp.
The receptionist takes the money, looks at it, raises it to check the watermark against the light, exhales; a furtive glance at Nicos’s sandals, a brief fondling of the banknote – not many five-hundreds going around in these parts – and then, placing the radio on the counter, his right hand disappears into the nether regions where his privates must hide, and after some obscene grimacing it comes up again holding a key with a long wooden handle dangling from the key ring. He gives it to Nicos reluctantly, his pudgy face distorted in an expression of mistrust or disgust. If you’re not here to do what most of them folks do then you’re up to no good, says the face. The wurst-lips say, number thirteen, first floor.
Nicos takes the key and climbs the creaky stairs. He’s never been superstitious, but thirteen? As for the receptionist, he’s right; this guest is up to no good.
It’s twelve-thirty and Nicos is painfully reminded of the fact that his stomach is undergoing a process of cancerous decomposition. For as long as he was walking or sitting he was under the impression that he’d digested his meagre dinner, but as soon as he lay down, an inner sea of stomach juices and Tam-Tam and solid peanuts and chewed but unharmed chicken pie was unleashed, rushing to his throat. Fighting the foul-tasting burps, he sat up and tried to sleep like that, propped on the two pillows, his head resting on the bedhead. At that precise moment, a hooker next door began to scream. ‘Fuck me! Fuck me! Tear me apart, you big stud!’ However, the big stud was apparently unmoved, because her screaming went on for about twenty minutes, by which time the only thing torn apart was Nicos’s chance of sleeping, and his head, split in two by a megamigraine. He didn’t want to waste any of his precious methadone – he only had twelve tablets – so he chewed some aspirin, washing it down with brownish water from the bathroom tap (a fouler taste, internal glug increased) and got down to Moby Dick. He’d brought the intimidating paperback because he’d never read it and because it featured in every 1001-Books-You-Simply-Must-Read-Before-You-Kick- The-Bucket sort of guide. He always believed there was a latent homosexual element in all these tales of heroism and male bonding, plus he’d once seen a cartoon version of the book in which the savage, although plainly modeled on superheroes like Superman or Skeletor, was a delectable tangle of muscled tattooed nakedness. So, trying to ignore the churning vomit in his stomach and the muffled cries of the windup whore who was preparing for round two, he lit a cigarette – cursing himself for having forgotten to buy at least a couple of cartons; did soft-pack Marlboro Lights even exist in the Seventies? – and began to read.
But it was hard to concentrate; the print was too small – his eyes kept missing a line or re-reading the same one; and there were so many words looking like typos (what did judgmatically mean?) and names entirely unfamiliar (who the hell was Hardecanute?) With every page his eyelids grew heavier and his thoughts more hazy. And soon he was lost in a semi-dreamland, where he still is, the body drawn in an unbearable reality of pain and nausea and the mind trying to float free, towards a private novel of which he knows by heart every single word, a happy-ending rewrite of Yuri and Lara’s love story, a tale of catching a beast far more elusive and ferocious than that hunted down by the courageous Captain Ahab and Queequeg.
It goes like this, his story:
On Monday the 31st, at dusk, eighteen-year old Nina Symeonidou arrives in Athens by train. Born and raised in Thessaloníki by liberal, open-minded parents whose ideas about child-raising were unconditionally Sumerhillian, Nina is a girl far more mature and emancipated than most girls her age; that’s why she doesn’t fear travelling on her own and going to the overpopulated capital to attend the Fine Arts School. The very subject she has chosen to study, judged frivolous by the majority of the struggling Greek families (so much less secure than a nice secretary’s job, which may lead to marriage to the nice, middle-aged boss), is one that causes her helpless bursts of passion: she sees herself as a potential humble addition to the ranks of brave, inspired artists such as Gabriele Münter, Georgia O’Keeffe, Tamara de Lempicka and Frieda Kahlo. To succeed in this most holy mission she is determined to strive and fight and work her hands to the bone and deny herself sleep and luxury and even love, yes, the love of her parents and friends and even the love of a man. Because young though she may be, Nina is a fully developed woman, both physically and psychically; from books her parents have never cared to hide she has learnt that it is natural to feel the thirst of her animal self and natural to want to quench it by touching or stroking or penetrating herself and most natural of all to fantasize about letting someone else do the touching and the stroking and the penetrating – and eventually to make the fantasy come true. Yet all these pleasures seem irrelevant as she climbs the steep cobblestones leading to her new, bare little home. She’s not indifferent to the tides of resistence and revolt, she knows that these are times of sacrifice and self-denial; her parents have already sacrificed so much for her to be able to pursue her dream (coming from a politically suspect family deprived her of a right to free accommodation; they’ll have to pay for her rent until she can find a job). Nina is intent on making the most of this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity that is youth: she rolls up her sleeves and marches head on into the future and never mind the fears and the loneliness.
And this admirable attitude is going to be rewarded as if by the force of a trigger-happy karma. It isn’t yet ten days she’s been living in the shadow of the Acropolis, working part-time as a waitress in a downtown patisserie, and she meets the love of her life: Yannis Apostólou, two years her senior and already an accomplished portraitist, working with charcoal; a boy gifted by nature and nurture, fellow student at the university and as beautiful to her as she is to him. The two of them, creatures of the same dream, will live happily ever after.
Or not; for this is not a regular story. It hasn’t been acted out yet – Nina and Yannis haven’t met, nor drunk the love potion; they scarcely even imagine it exists. This is Nicos’s story, it belongs to him completely, and he may add a final twist, easily and imperceptibly as if by a rapid movement of the eyes behind the curtain of the eyelids. Boy meets girl; but boy must not meet girl; boy must never meet girl.
In the morning the pain suddenly seizes him, waking him up and making a groaning helpless rag out of his body; he tosses and turns for hours on end, crying and praying for death, and when he opens his eyes a woman sits next to him on the bed, holding a steaming cup in one hand. She has auburn hair and kind blue eyes and she is dressed in white. I died, thinks Nicos, I died and this is an angel, or the Virgin Mary. Well, what do you know! The Christians got it right.
The apparition smiles and says to him, Wakey wakey, sugar. I’m Sophia.
Nicos tries to make out the details as much as his tear-filled eyes allow him; now he sees she’s no angel: her face and lips and eyes bear the smudges of too much makeup, the hair is a sleepy mess; the hand she extends, to touch his sweating forehead, has copper-coloured bangles, three rings and long nails painted crimson. He flinches.
Shhhh, it’s alright, she says, laughing. I’m not gonna hurt you. Here, drink this.
Nicos sits up, his heart beating like crazy; fear has driven the pain away. He realizes he’s drenched in sweat – it’s been decades since he’s experienced a summer night without air-conditioning. Wh-ho are you? he asks, the tongue sticking to the palate.
I’m Sophia, your next-door neighbour.
Drowsiness being tactless, he says, Yeah, I know – I heard you last night.
Sophia laughs again – a genuine girlish laugh. I’m sure you did! I’m sorry, I’m afraid it’s part of the show. But you’re lucky the walls are so thin, ’cause I heard you too. I bet you ate something nasty. Here, drink this – it’ll make the pain go away. She holds the cup close to his lips; it contains a clear, orangey liquid that smells awful.
Get that thing away from me! What is it, anyway?
It’s nothing – just some boiled firethorn berries. Snakes eat them all the time, that’s how they make their poison. My nana used to make this whenever I got the cramps. Trust me, it’ll do you a world of good.
Thanks, but no, thanks. Firethorn? Isn’t that the stuff that grows everywhere?
Yep. I got this bunch from Lycabettus. Come on, don’t be such a sissy, at least try it.
I said no. Consciousness comes creeping little by little, reducing the pain, or rather the terror of it; it’s true after all: you can’t die if there’s someone there with you. But how’d she get in? He asks her just that.
Ah, it’s nothing, really, she says, and waves her hair flirtatiously; a couple of hairpins fall onto the sheets. Forcin’ a door in this dump is as easy as breakin’ a piggy bank. You should keep yours locked, she adds with a wink.
Nicos looks at her with wide, incredulous eyes; then he looks at the hairpins – another thing he thought only happened in films – and his hand darts to his right pocket. The money’s still there.
Sophia notices the momentary panic, and placing the cup on the nighttable, crosses her arms in mock offense. You’re a real shit, you know that? And dumb. You think I’d steal from you and then just sit around and wait to get caught? You should be ashamed of yourself – and to think I was worried about you!
Nicos still looks at her with mistrust.
Come on, see for yourself! I haven’t gone through your pockets, I haven’t touched a thing. I don’t even know your name, for Chrissake! She giggles. What’s your name, by the way?
Nicos. And I’m sorry about before, but – A stabbing pain makes him gasp. He bends over, moaning.
Sophia takes his limp hand, shakes it. Nice to meet you, Nico, she says. Then she takes the cup and forces it into his hand. Now drink the damn thing! It’s good for you; look at me – I began to drink it when I was just a little girl, and now I’m all grown up, a successful karapútanos!
The half-Turkish, half-Greek word – a black whore, a whore larger-than-life – makes him laugh. Mirth breeds trust and he consents to a tentative sip. The thing tastes vile. Ughh! He grimaces, pushes the cup away. No way I drink this shit!
Oh yes you will, she says, and grabbing him from the neck like a kitten, (the manicured hand strong, the muscles fierce after a life of early hardship of which hookerdom was the easy part) she makes him open his mouth and force-feeds him the scolding brew. Nicos fights and coughs and retches but in the end there’s not a drop left. There! she says, with a satisfied look, as if she’s made an impotent customer come. Good as new!
And the strangest thing is that he does feel good, at least much better than before. The invisible knife gutting him from the inside has been replaced by a blunt throb which he can handle if he breathes a bit shallowly. Sophia smiles, and again there’s something angelic about her face, her stained and cigarette-burnt white nightie. He knows, of course, that you can’t trust a hooker, life’s been too shitty for her to have been left undamaged, these women have a fundamental right to be manipulative and demanding. This Sophia most certainly wants something from him, or else she wouldn’t be here. But still, this grandma’s remedy was an act of unusual kindness.
Thanks for the snakefood, he says. It tastes god-awful but I think it helped.
Ah, it’s nothing, she says, taking a cigarette from his almost empty pack. You don’t mind, do you? It’s a filthy thing to do, seeing as you only got a couple more, but I’m fresh out and I just can’t go out in this heat! She lights up, blowing the smoke through her nose, head turned upwards, legs crossed, vamp-like. Aaah – nothing like a nice smoke to start a working girl’s day! Although (she turns to him) I have to confess, this is pretty early for me; I mean, seven-thirty is like daybreak for poor Sophia, walking up and down Athinàs Street all night long...
Nicos’s heart gives a jolt. Seven-thirty? he exclaims, getting up, about to take the cell phone out of his pocket (the wristwatch didn’t survive the time travel). But then he notices Sophia, who stares at him wide-eyed, who’s never seen a cell phone before. I – I didn’t realize it was so late, he stutters, looking out the window. I mean, what with all this sun – (Get a hold of yourself, he thinks. This is summertime, you know? You’ve got less than an hour, you gotta hurry!) Look, Sophia, it was awfully nice of you to drop by, I really appreciate it, but I gotta run.
The vampish air is gone; she looks disappointed. Nicos is furiously trying to locate his left sandal, which must have slipped underneath the bed somehow. You tired of me already? she says, lying on her stomach and looking up, her voice the soft purr of a cat in heat.
Oh God, no, please don’t tell me she wants a quickie. How long will it take me to walk to the Anafiótika? Listen, doll, he says, trying to smile, to be gentle, you’re a lovely-looking girl, but –
But you gotta run.
Plus, you don’t dig girls.
Ha-how – ?
It’s okay, Nicoláki, she says, giggling. I live off my pussy, remember? And it sure knows its way around guys, believe you me, it’s like a radar, and it knows your dick ain’t showing on the screen. But it’s okay, your secret’s safe with me, I’m not gonna tell your mom. And she runs her fingers across her lips in a zipper gesture.
Thanks, he says, knowing it’s lame, but what is there to say? You can keep the cigarettes, by the way.
Ooh! You’re a sweetheart!
He takes the room key, goes to the bathroom to wash his face. The pain has disappeared – he’s in such a rush, he can feel nothing besides his heartbeat.
Sophia calls from the room, Nicoláki?
I was wondering – could you do me an itsy-bitsy favour?
Here goes, he thinks. She wants money. To buy cigarettes, she’ll say. Or give it to her grandma, convalescing from a stroke after having drunk too much firethorn, or to her brother who’s in the army and is out on leave and just has to make it back to the base in time and is in desperate need of cab fare. What is it? he asks.
Sophia has got out of bed and waits by the door, standing on tiptoe with her hands behind her back, her face a big bright ‘O’ of innocence; a schoolgirl about to ask a favour from her daddy. You think you could spare a twenty? she says.
Nicos puts his hand in his pocket. He doesn’t have time for this nonsense. He didn’t survive today’s morning ordeal to stand his destiny up. Sure, he says. What for?
So I can go to bed on my own tonight, she says. And there’s such earnestness in her voice, such smiling pain, it breaks his heart. He takes a hundred out and hands it to her. But she won’t take it.
No no no no no! she says, moving her head rapidly and sprinkling the smelly carpet with hairpins. It’s too much! I can’t! I simply can’t!
Luckily, there’s a tiny pocket on the breast of her nightgown, and Nicos tucks in the hundred drachmas forcibly. She recoils, holding her breast as if it were struck by an arrow. She looks him in the eye and says, I’ll get you your eighty back, I swear I will!
It’s okay, he says, smiling nervously. She’s standing in front of the door.
Oops, sorry! she giggles, and steps to the right.
He opens the door and waits.
Oh, right! Right! She leaves the room with a prance, a happy hooker-sprite. Nicos closes the door and begins to lock it.
Wait! she says. What about my cup?
Cup? What cup? Then he remembers. (Fuck! ) He starts to unlock the door, but she grabs his hand.
No no no, how silly of me, I forgot, I got two of those. Keep it – you better drink from that, let the tap water settle a bit, or else you’ll be drinking all the rust!
Thanks for the tip, he says, and rushes down the stairs.
Like white barnacles clinging to the northern face of the Acropolis Rock, the Anafiótika resemble those seashells found on mountaintops but really belonging to the bottom of a prehistoric ocean – a charming trompe l’oeil, a patch of island misplaced on the glorious centerpiece of the Attic plain. Owing its name to the island of Anáfi, floating lonely in the southwest reach of the Cyclades, this jumble of tiny, picturesque houses has a long and adventurous history. During the era in which Athens was busy becoming the cradle of Western civilization, engaging, as all aspiring cradles do, in quite a bit of powermongering (that eventually led to the Peloponnesian War which was a disaster for the great city), the oracle of Delphi forbade that any building be erected in this particular shade of the Parthenon. This, however, didn’t stop certain destitute people, amongst which many were refugees from the ravaged Megara and Corinth, from seeking shelter on the steep, holy ground, where at least no one would dare harm them. Although throughout the centuries the sanctity of the Acropolis became nothing but a faint memory, this north-facing slope continued to attract sporadic haven-seeking visitors, like the Abyssinian slaves who used to hide in the shallow caves of the hill to escape their Ottoman despots. But the period when construction on this impossible spot of land really bloomed was right after the War of Independence, when builders from the distant Anáfi arrived in throngs, to offer their services to the budding metropolis, while at night they built their own tiny homes, quick and inventive as birds building a nest, so much so that often a whitewashed cubical houselet was completed overnight. This was illegal, of course, but it is said than when the police arrived one morning to arrest the islanders and their families and tear down their homes, something spoke to them, some trace of the ancient awe, or maybe they were simply overwhelmed by the beauty of the Cycladic architecture combined with the imposing surroundings, and in the end they just didn’t have the heart to deprive the Anafiotes of their homes. What’s even more interesting is that, despite the rebuilding orgasm that seized the Greek capital after the Second World War, this charmingly bizarre neighbourhood was spared; the island replica was preserved as a tourist attraction, but people still lived inside the centenarian giant die, devoid most of them of modern luxuries such as electricity, running water or an in-house toilet; some of the tenants were simply poor, but others were drawn to the place because its strangeness and uniqueness bewitched them. Thus was initiated a long tradition of penniless artists living and breathing Acropolis. It was only natural for any young, would-be painter to dream of living there.
Nicos sits on the low, whitewashed parapet and gazes at the city, trying to see whether he can recall the buildings missing from the view, the towering monstrosities that didn’t yet exist in 1970. But he’s so anxious, he can’t find a single one – it’s as if all memory of the future world has been erased, his mind focusing only on the past (that is, the present), his eyes darting every other second to the direction of the long, winding stairs going from the Anafiótika all the way down to the Pláka. The sun is setting fast, and fearless of the still-benign UV he’s been staring at the diminishing blood orange for too long: every time he turns to look at the stairs, there’s a bluish semicircle blocking his sight, an afterimage. Maybe my mind is simply trying to protect me from the shock, he thinks. Maybe I shouldn’t see this – it’s not natural. But lately the natural things happening to him are few indeed.
After the fourth funny-tasting cigarette – he can’t get rid of the feeling that this particular pack has been sitting on the kiosk’s shelf for over thirty years, the tobacco dried to a perpetual staleness – he takes out his cell phone and turns it on, to check the time; there’s no one around to see it. The poor, futuristic creature, severed from its reality, comes alive with a plaintive beep, then tries desperately to get a signal, fails, displays a cheerful Hello, Nico! and then the main screen (a pang of pain – he’d forgotten), with a close-up of a smiling Zoì as background. Fighting not to think about his dearest friend and what goes on in her faraway life, Nicos looks at the lonely digits: it’s almost eight-thirty. She should be here, he knows she’d got to the painter’s house just as it was growing dark, he’s heard the damn story a million times! Where is she? He’s afraid that she’s not coming, something happened to her, or maybe – that’s unbearable, he mustn’t think that – maybe this layer of the Scope doesn’t contain her, or some detail has changed, in which case he’s screwed, royally.
Just then, as he turns the cell off and looks with a surge of panic at the disappearing sun, willing it to stop, to wait one more minute, a soft, repetitive sound is heard, coming closer every second. A puff, a panting. He turns his head, listens; the panting sounds louder now, like his heart. Does he dare presume it’s an out-of-breath girl? Is it her, can this truly be happening? He gazes at the stairs, his heart beats so wildly he thinks he’s going to faint, the afterimage of the sun withers in the dark depth of the alleyways. And in the day’s last reddish light, Nicos finally sees his eighteen year-old mother, sweating, breathless, lugging a huge suitcase.
Nicos freezes; the girl stops to catch her breath and sees him, looming high above her like a dark statue outlined in white; and as if she knows this to be a friendly face, the face of her son, she smiles and waves and then picks up the suitcase again.
He darts to the stairs, descending them four at a time – he must help her with that awful thing, it’s what men do these days, there’s no such thing as sexual harassment, women are still fragile and helpless and this one is so young and delicate that it kills him to see her dragging such colossal weight. Also, if he doesn’t do something, he’ll start bawling like a baby, he’ll want to grab her in his arms and she’ll freak out.
The girl turns once more towards the galloping sound, stops, and when he’s reached her, breathless himself, she doesn’t surrender the suitcase but insists that they each grab one end and carry it horizontally, like an obese midget’s coffin.
Thanks a million, she says. You’re a true gentleman, you know that? No one’s offered to help with the damn thing, most of the guys I passed on the street seemed quite happy to see me carry it all by myself, sweating like a pig – one of them even whistled at me, I guess he thought it’s very sexy to be a mess. I look terrible, don’t I?
Nicos thinks she looks wonderful but he can’t say so because he can’t speak; the suitcase is too heavy and the emotion’s heavier yet. He can’t get his eyes off of her, she’s so pretty and young, younger than he, a child. Is she taller than he remembers? Did she shrink with middle age, was her hair always this black and shiny? There may be slight alterations in this reality, Persephone had warned him about it, but Nicos thinks it’s just too much happiness, distorting everything he sees a bit, like madness.
I’m Nina, by the way, she says, and stretching her right hand with a groan across the suitcase, she pats him on the shoulder, in lieu of handshake. The touch is electric, he feels bitten by bliss. Nicos, he manages to say.
Nice to meet you, Nico. You know, yours is one of my favourite names. You’re my favourite guy in Athens, Nico – not that I know that many, but you’ve been such an angel! They’re getting close to the top, so their step relents and she can talk without fighting for breath. This is the Anafiótika, right? I mean, I’d feel like a complete fool if I made you carry this thing and it’s the wrong part of town. I’m from Salonica myself – you’ve ever been? It’s lovely, really, if the wind’s not blowing from the south and the Thermaïcòs gulf isn’t acting up, otherwise the stench is unbearable, but I’ve always dreamed of living in Athens, I mean, just look at this place, isn’t it gorgeous? I know, I know, you’re probably used to it, and right now you’re thinking, can’t she at least shut up, that’s what I get for being a gentleman, but I promise I’ll repay you the kindness some day, treat to you to some aspirin at least if I’ve given you a headache, seeing as there’s no patisseries up there to buy you a sweet or something – ah, I’m already missing the Turkish pastries, the saraglì, filo and ground walnut and the whole thing swimming in syrup, mmm, I should’ve brought some but I gotta watch out, tall girls forget that they too can get fat, and me, I have to become terribly thin or else how am I supposed to fit to the profile of the starving artist? Because, you know, I may be young and beautiful and a total pain with all this babble, but actually I’m planning to become a world-class painter. Some day my stuff will be worth millions!
They’ve reached the top of the stairs and they both squat on the warm cobblestones, panting, wiping the sweat off their faces. Nicos’s heart is beating madly, but he’s never been happier. No, he doesn’t mind the passionate girlish babble, it’s the loveliest sound he could hope to hear in this foreign dimension, it’s music to his ears; because it reminds him of the countless times his mother used to call him – she’d embraced the cell phone revolution with fervour, being one of the first people in Greece to have one –, talking ten minutes straight about this film they saw with dad which he must see, or about this new Chinese restaurant behind Omónia that’s simply divine. It’s as if love, love for things as much as for people, filled her up so that she had to convert it into words, to share and infect others with her passion. And it’s pure magic to see the same qualities in this teenage girl, the same brightness of the eyes, to hear the same unforced giggle that reveals the same pearly, invincible little teeth she always had despite the sweets and the smoking. The only thing that hurts a bit is the hope in her voice; she still believes she’ll become a famous painter, she has the right – the obligation – to dream; little does she know of the troubles awaiting her, of the fact that too much and love and too early will force her to abandon her great expectations, until by the time she’s twenty-four her talents will be wasted in doodles drawn to amuse her son. Then it hits him – it doesn’t have to be so. One of the reasons he’s here with her right now is so that he can avert the surrender of young Nina’s dreams, a thing which has been bugging him forever; he can erase the burning why’s with a why not. This pretty girl may really have it in her to become famous, world-renowned, a creatrix of masterpieces, and he’s here to make sure she can go for it. The idea is thrilling.
The house Nina is looking for – and which he tries very hard not to show that he’s already identified – is well known to Nicos; he’s seen it many times though he’s never been inside; for this house is another part of his mother’s personal mythology.
The woman who used to live here, born at the turn of the century, was the daughter of one of the original builders of the settlement. When her parents were dead and her siblings had either gone off to get married or were killed in the war or died of natural or unnatural causes, she inherited the tiny house. Word has it that, albeit unofficially and thus illegally, she earned her money prostituting herself – to soldiers, tourists and neighbours. And on the outbreak of the Civil War that followed the liberation from the Germans, bound perhaps to the people’s cause out of a sense of physical solidarity, she took to the mountains to fight on the guerillas’ side, leaving behind a ten year-old boy of unknown paternity. The forties were a time when children matured and became self-reliant much more quickly, and the little orphan managed to provide for himself, by doing odd jobs and by receiving in its many forms the kindness of strangers – neighbours’ wives who sympathized with the whore’s poor, innocent boy, and gave him fruit and pieces of cheese pie, and sometimes the husbands themselves, who, having got used to easy trysts, found something of the mother in the youth’s delicate body and long lashes and green inviting eyes. Human nature worked its wonders, and though entirely self-taught, the boy began to distill the beauty and the ugliness of his life into paintings of unusual violence, done at first with scraps of coal on the walls of his house and later on, with money he earned by following in his mother’s footsteps, advancing to watercolours and oils. Drawing probably on his own experiences but enhancing reality with the horrors hidden in his brain, the young artist achieved a stunning depiction of the male body in both its ugliest and its holiest, with a penchant for the abstract that had an inexplicable affinity with the art of Francis Bacon. It appears that his work had caused much private awe, because after having sold a number of paintings to daring clients and acquaintances, an underground gallery, operating in an abandoned slaughterhouse, offered to do an exhibition of his work. The paintings were provoking and outright shocking, and somehow – a fellow artist, green with envy, was the most likely suspect – news of the show leaked to the police, who didn’t waste time arresting the painter, confiscating and destroying whatever canvases they could get their hands on. After a speedy trial, he was sentenced to twenty years of prison, on a combination of charges ranging from gross indecency to prostitution. The year was 1963. Five years later, during the purges of the junta, his case was re-opened and he was brought to trial once more, this time with the additional charges of being a communist and plotting to destabilize the Revolution; his mother’s mountaineering had got out. This, of course, was utterly ridiculous, since he was eleven years old at the time of his mother’s arrest and execution; also, from scraps of knowledge picked up in the company of intellectuals, he’d gathered that communism abhors homosexuals, and the feelings were mutual. Alas, justice is blind. The judge, insensitive to the poor man’s state – he’d become a ghost in prison, a shadow of a shadow – sentenced him to another twenty years in the Léros prison camp. He was beating a dead horse; the painter perished three months later from acute myelogenic leukemia. He was thirty.
Nina’s family came into the spotlight of this tragedy when it was sadly too late. A friend of her father’s, owner of a theatre in Thessaloníki and frequent visitor to the Athenian meat markets, had acquired several of the painter’s early works, impressive watercolours done strictly in red and black, and when he heard news of the second trial he asked for his help, as the state-appointed defense attorney would probably be a puppet. Both the Symeonides went to Athens in a haste, but their passionate pleading was of no avail: by the strict ethos of the junta the man was already condemned. Although they’d only met him once, in the courtroom, when he was a pale skeleton who tried to smile, Nina’s parents were greatly distressed when he died; they felt guilty; her mother cried and cried. This made their young daughter adhere to her dreams with a rage, as if by succeeding she could avenge the dead painter. So she was proud to live in his barren home, that had been repossessed by the municipality, and when some years later she became partner in her husband’s antique shop, she tried ferociously to retrieve any remaining paintings, once even filling their Kifissià drawing room with beastly naked men in a private attempt at a retrospective. Again it was too late; the painter received only half-hearted admiration; his nudes looked suspiciously Baconesque, and besides there were too few to make a name for him. Those that she’d failed to sell were eventually stored in the attic – they were a bit disconcerting to have around – but the story of their creator was preserved as a paradigm of selfless, humble glory, of never giving up (even though the man never achieved actual glory; even if in the end he just had to give up). To the impressionable Nicolì the story of the ‘naked red mister’–maker became another family fable, one somewhat perplexing until he grew up and began to loathe himself. Ever since, the painter’s been a sad sort of icon, a patron saint of little-known grief. Nicos in turns pitied and admired him, thought of him as an example of a fate worse than his own or of how much life a person can condense in thirty years, if he’s got the spunk; whatever his feelings, the painter was an important figure to him.
So, when his mother, dragging now the suitcase on her own, stops in front of the house, recognizing it by the glossy red shutters – last time he was up here they’d become a dull cinnamon, the paint flakey – Nicos holds his breath. Young Nina takes out the ancient-looking key and unlocks the door: one, crack, two, crack. Sacred musty darkness greets them.
Nicos sits on an old trunk, great and invisible as thought. Nina sits on the squeaky cot that once held the weight of the painter’s body and perhaps not only his. There’s a tiny gas lamp set on the floor between them, but the gloom it has to fight is too strong and too old an opponent; it sheds more shadow than light. They could try opening a window, but they lack the energy; also, the place imposes some unconscious respect for darkness – if it resisted electricity, then it’s meant to be as dark as the night.
He sees glimpses of the painter’s anguished soul on the walls: large splashes and outlines, half-men and half-monsters in red and black, sensual and primitive; behind his mother’s head shines the tip of a violently ejaculating penis, so vivid that in the dimness he can almost see the wall throb with the tremors of orgasm. The juxtaposition of the sweet, tired face and the cockstand embarrasses him, as if the enormous member were his own. Nina yawns, but says nothing.
Maybe he should go. After all, she invited him because she had no choice, he’d helped her carry the suitcase, it’s not like she could say, Nice to meet you and shut the door in his face. But Nicos can’t leave her; not yet; although whatever he could think of saying to her belongs to a different Nina, he’s reluctant to leave her all alone in this dusty tomb of a house, which doesn’t offer even the comforts of a real bed, of a hotplate on which to make some coffee or warm a can of baked beans. How is she supposed to live like this, what about when she needs to take a pee? He is incensed by his grandparents’ indifference, pretentious commie bastards and cheapskates, willing to travel first-class to Athens to defend an unknown faggot but too stingy to set up their only daughter in a decent apartment. However, Nina’s rapidly sleepy face has not a hint of resentment. She was the one who chose to live here, like a 19th century pauper; she dreams of becoming important and this is the ideal surroundings: the home of a hero.
She yawns again, this time so helplessly that she has to hide her mouth in girlish savoir-faire. I’m so sorry, she says, giggling, I don’t know – she yawns again, her voice comes out distorted like a moan – oh, I don’t know why this sudden sleepiness. I’m probably tired from the trip, the train was horrible, but – yawn – this is ridiculous! I mean, it’s what? Nine? Nine-thirty?
Nicos stands up. I’d better get going, he says. Unless you want me to help you unpack or something. Maybe we should open a window?
No, it’s okay, you’ve done more than enough. She looks at him, jaw trembling, trying to stifle yet another yawn. You don’t think I’m a terrible person, do you, kicking you out like this? I promise I’ll make it up for you – oh – oh God – yawn.
I think you’re a perfectly adorable young girl.
Really? Come on! It’s because it’s so dark in here and you can’t see me properly, all sweaty and covered in dust. I must stink like a goat! Does this place have a shower?
(It doesn’t look like it does, but what’s there to do? Offer to take her with him to the hotel/brothel so that she can have a bath?) You’re sure you don’t want me –
No, no, she says, rising from the bed. If you do any more, I’ll be taking advantage of you, and I’m not that kind of girl!
Now she stands very close to him; her face is a marble mask of youth. Nicos can smell the gentle sourness of her body and hair and mouth and armpits and sex. Nina yawns again, and the grimacing distorts her youthfulness, it makes her momentarily identical to her future self, the one he saw the day before yesterday. And suddenly it’s impossible that he stay another second with her, here in this Plato’s cave of ignorance and all-encompassing existence, because at some point he existed solely inside this young woman’s body, she contained him, they shared blood and breath until he came sliding out of her dark pungent orifice, and now, surrounded by the half-hidden phalli and the brutal naked men he should desire if they were alive, this bond, this intimacy, threatens to swallow him up; if Nina takes another step they’ll have to kiss and he will become moist flesh and placenta and dissolve on the floor.
Her guileless eyes, of course, know nothing of his terror. She shakes his hand with mock formality and says, Well, Nico, it was really nice meeting you, and I mean it. You saved me from certain, undignified death on those awful steps – which I’ll have to climb day in day out, hurray!
It was nice meeting you too, Nina. (And here he must add the difficult thing, the perhaps mortifying thing; what if she says no?) And... and if you don’t mind, I’d really like to see you again.
She withdraws her hand and assumes a stern look. Nicos feels faint. Then a soft crack makes her lower lip tremble and she smiles, then laughs, heartily, a child still.
Had you fooled there, right? Aw, I’m a terrible, terrible person! Of course we’ll see each other – whad’ya think, that I’m some kind of prude? A northerner bumpkin, terrified of the big bad men? No, dear Nico, I’m afraid you’ll have to see more of me, more that’s good for you even, I’m gonna bore you to death with my questions. Because deep down I really am a bumpkin, I’m so excited to finally be in Athens, you know, where everything happens, everything important, that is, and I got no one to show me around. So, whad’you say? Will you be my official guide to the glorious capital?
Y-yes, of course!
It’s a deal, then! God, I just hope I’ll make it through the night and I won’t choke to death with the dust in this place! Ooh, and another thing, when we go on these tours, we’ve just got to keep away from Zográfou, wherever the hell that is! My father’s cousin lives there, and she’s a terrible busybody, I mean, she wanted me to go and stay with her, like that would ever happen, and if she sees us she’ll tell my dad and he’ll freak, because – and she comes closer, whispering – I don’t even know if I should be tellin’ you this, you know how it is these days, the walls have ears, not these walls though, these ones have penises, but anyway, my family are all closet commies, and dad especially is convinced they have him followed, and he made me swear I wouldn’t befriend any stranger, he might be a snitch working for the junta, and here I am, me and my big mouth, blabbing away to a guy who might put me and my folks in jail! But you don’t look – I don’t know – snitchlike at all, there’s something about you, about your face, that’s almost familiar, that makes me trust you completely. Isn’t it crazy?
They’re standing outside now. The night is cool and fragrant. Nicos feels safe and horribly afraid at the same time. They say goodnight and he walks away quickly, turning around when he’s reached the stairs to see if she’s waiting at the door; she is. They wave to each other and then he goes down the stairs and hears the door close.
An intricate acid of feelings is eating through his heart: fear for his own life; these are dangerous times, people find themselves in jail for no apparent reason; and his own life is infinitely more fragile – if they put him in prison he’d die within days, he knows he would. And then there’s fear for his young, too trusting mother; she really shouldn’t have said these things to him, it was stupid of her to open her heart to a stranger; and another fear: will she make it on her own? Is it safe for a young girl to live in such isolation, surrounded by strangers in a house which has neither electricity nor phone? What if he weren’t who he is? How could she have let him in? And what if the dust is actually dangerous for her? (That site about dust mites, horrible creatures, microscopic tarantulas crawling inside his mother’s lungs!) But his worst fear is the fear of success; his face being familiar – what was all that about? Is it possible that she sensed the silent voice of her own blood? And does this mean that he will succeed in this screwed-up mission of his? Does he even want to?
He arrives at the hotel Óneiron with a heavy heart and a burning stomach – he hasn’t eaten all day, but he can’t, or won’t. His insides no longer deserve to be fed, treating him like this.
The behemoth receptionist is dozing, head slumping and hands on his chest, with fingers crossed: the unintentional sleep of the monstrously fat.
He enters his room and turns on the light (Nina, Nina is in the dark) and steps on something hard, metallic. There are four twenty-drachma coins on the floor. The room next door is quiet.
Little by little, a peculiar friendship starts to develop between Nicos and Nina. Armed with the secret knowledge of her favourite things, things that make her laugh or sigh with passion and amazement, he creates a truthful illusion of a psychic bond – truthful because he knows this woman, and most of the beauty mentioned during their talks he learnt to appreciate from her; and an illusion, because, although pleasing her immensely and bringing her joy, the fact remains that his befriending has a malicious heart; by keeping her company he’s really trying to lure her away from a prospective and proven happiness, he’s fooling her deliberately and for this feels wretched all the time.
The wretchedness spreads with frightening synchronism through his body. A bug he somehow picked up has made urination a living hell, his gums are filled with painful ulcers and once, after having smoked too much and drunk too much red wine while discussing Nina’s beloved Pushkin, he has a coughing fit that brings up an alarming quantity of phosphorescent blood, which he smears on the wall’s red-painted torsos while Nina goes to fetch him a drink of water. But as much as the bodily decay scares him, it also spurs him to pursue his evil purpose with even greater determination.
So, he takes young, appreciative Nina on daily best-of-Athens tours, to places and sights he’s never visited in years, trying to hide his constant disorientation in this alien city, and making light of the fact that it takes them forever to locate the desired bar or nightclub, or that he doesn’t seem to know how much things cost. This is perceived by Nina as proof of his being tremendously rich, and Nicos lets her believe in these riches. It’s disgusting to admit, but he thinks she’ll feel safer in the company of a wealthy, experienced man, that she’ll have so much fun she’ll never even think of getting to know other people, people closer to her age, university students especially (he suffers two hours of insurmountable terror one day, when she’s not home and returns two hours later, saying she’s really sorry but she had to go to the Fine Arts School to fill in some application forms; he curses technology for not having come up with cellular telephony earlier). When asked about himself, other than the writers and musicians and painters he adores – and which almost always coincide with her own favourites – Nicos is vague and just a bit pretentious; his mother is trusting and easy to impress. He says he’s lived abroad for the past ten years, studying English Literature and writing a dissertation on Nabokov (Nina was greatly titillated by Lolita); he returned to Greece as secret correspondent for a left-wing quarterly, to describe the underlying horrors of the junta (he narrowly escapes humiliation, almost mentioning Jean-Paul Sartre as editor in chief and only at the last minute recalling that, contrary to himself, his mother spoke French – so he places the fictitious quarterly in London); he’s staying at the Hotel Grande Bretagne (expensive and precluding visits to ‘his place’) and the reason he wants to become friends with her is that he finds her intelligent, well-read and fascinating to be with. The compliment is received without forced reciprocation nor with bashful, flirtatious silence; Nina simply says, Thanks – this means a lot coming from someone as sophisticated as you. (He trusts his mother’s moral values and has faith in her sincerity, but still this was a close call; though no lover of women, he knows how this kind of compliment is usually regarded, and reminds himself that he has to proceed with utter caution; this is dangerous, freakish ground).
The sun saying goodbye to September the 6th reddens the faces of mother and son, who are sitting on the terrace of the legendary Vársos patisserie at Kiffisià, enjoying the sweets and the fragrant mildness of dusk – or at least one of them enjoys these things; Nicos’s stomach threatens to eject the tiniest uninvited sugary morcel; plus he’s worried that they’re too close to his grandfather’s home; what if his father, out on a bike ride, has a sudden craving for profiterole? What if his mother, leaving for a second to go to the bathroom, bumps into him and they rub their foreheads and laugh and say, I’m sorry and laugh some more and fall in love? His mind is buzzing constantly with such panicky static; this whole day has been decidedly unreal: when he woke up he was in such infernal pain he finally had to take half a methadone pill, and ever since he’s been moving with frightening, dreamy sluggishness, dozing off on the train so that Nina had to wake him up when they got to the terminal; he made some pathetic excuse about staying up all night, reading Marcuse’s Eros and Civilization, which proved to be a fatal mistake, as Nina became very excited at the mention of this particular theoretician, banned by the junta, bombarding him with animated questions, to which Nicos – who’d only skimmed the damn book at nineteen, when for some reason it had become something of a fad among his fellow students – had to improvise ridiculous answers. Now, pretending to sip his buttermilk (a bad, bad choice) he just prays that Nina will finish her ice cream soon, and that the next question she asks has nothing to do with anarchy and the death of democracy.
But sweet mom, wiping her chocolate-smeared chin on her napkin, has already made a mental leap with her overcharged, young mind, from civilization to eros. So, her next question, as she accepts the proffered cigarette, is an even more dreadful one; better that she had asked of him to make up a complete biography of dear old Herbert.
Nico, she says, looking away – blowing the smoke through lips that are the prototype of his own, a mirror smoker – now I hope you don’t mind my asking, I mean, I’d respect it absolutely if you don’t wanna talk about this stuff, it’s personal anyway, but it’s really been bugging me, what someone like you has to say about it – and now she turns and looks at him. Do you believe in love at first sight?
Alarm adds a second glaze to his opiated eyes, the pupils disappear from fright. His face is such a death mask, that Nina starts to apologize.
Oh, no, no, no, oh my God, no, Nico, I didn’t mean it this way, it must have sounded – oh God, you must think I’m a regular slut, but really, what I meant to ask, it’s something else completely, I mean, you’ve been abroad and traveled and read tons of books and done some pretty important stuff in your life, and all I know about it – about love – I know from books and yet... this whole... thing sounds so momentous when they describe it, and most writers do, what else can one write about, right, that I thought it must be interesting to know your point of view, to hear this from someone who’s actually fallen in love, who’s been in love and not just another stupid boy who listens to Theodorakis cooped up in some basement when all the while he’s just thinking about how to get in your pants. Oh God, I’m sorry, here I am, babbling again!
She’s turned red, or maybe it’s the sunset. Nicos is trying to cope with this onslaught of innocent curiosity, these knives his mother’s stuck in his heart; she never did this in real life, in the future – she respected him, she left well enough alone. She does respect him now, but this is different, this is the adulation of healthy puberty towards an adult wisdom in the matters of the heart. But what can he say to her, really? How is he to swallow the bitterness of a life devoid of carnality, how can he find the strength to lie to this beautiful person, on the outset of a life filled with dreams of love, he, whose own life is drawing to an end because he was deprived of the thing? And above all, how can he forgive himself for what he’s doing to Nina, mother, giver of life, whose other half he’s plotting to keep her away from?
His frozen eyelids, batting too suddenly and too fast, and his voice, choking from lack of words, give an appearance of great emotion, which Nina is free to translate as she wishes. It makes lying easier. Once there was someone... he begins, and can speak no more. She drops the subject and starts to talk about Bergman’s Silence, with vigour.
In parallel to the familial drama, Sophia becomes a solid presence in Nicos’s life. The thirty-six year old whore (it comes as a shock that she’s older than him, she looks so young) has assumed a maternal role; she brings him barley rusks soaked in olive oil and water, the only food that doesn’t frustrate his stomach too much; she helps him bathe, rubbing his back and supporting him to and out of the bathroom whenever he’s in too much pain or too stoned from the methadone to be able to carry his weight; she even washes his clothes in the grimy bathtub, hanging them to dry on two army boot laces knotted together that she’d once stolen from a drunk sailor. Nicos is grateful for these favours, which he tries to return by giving her a twenty every day (she won’t accept more than that). But what he secretly enjoys even more than the pampering, what puts his mind at ease just when it’s about to come unraveled by the cancerous agony, is the unfolding of her life, narrated bit by bit like chapters in a soap opera of the underclass. And it appears that the pleasure is mutual; obliged in her work to be the vessel of the painful stories of others, Sophia is always eager to recount old miseries and make a laughing matter of her escapades.
She was born in the Peloponnesian village of Laganás. On the outbreak of World War Two she was a mere eight years old, yet one of those girls who mature at a fantastic pace, as if their body can’t wait to shoulder the dreadful burdens of womanhood. During the German occupation, which had made prostitutes of many desperate women, the martini-glass-bosomed Sophia, who had eyes of sapphire and a shiny coppery mane, became a favourite of many a blond soldier and officer, who found in her light colouring an echo of familiar northern milkiness, rewarding her and her family with tinned beef and spaghetti and chocolate, at a time when the streets of Greece were littered daily with cadavers, courtesy of the famine. The promiscuous family provider actually cherished the attention and the uniqueness her position gave her, so that she didn’t relent or worry when she got her first period; after that, she was going to the village midwife every other month for a quick uterine garbage disposal. Thus, by the time of the Axis’s defeat, she was utterly and completely sterile. This she didn’t see as a cause for grief; she was rather pleased to be unable to conceive, as it would be a huge asset in the only line of work she was accustomed to, and which beat the hell out of waking up at four in the morning to make bread and feed the hens and milk the cows; the roughness of farming wasn’t meant for this delicate body, kissed and caressed and violated by so many men; also the villagers were beginning to drop hints as to her family’s dubious dealings with the Germans. So Sophia came to Athens, where she’d been working the streets for more than twenty years, constantly on the move and never having a pimp, a free mountain spirit, uncompromisingly optimistic and young.
But what is really amazing to witness is her intuitive mind. The riding and pounding of thousands have shaped the irregular bark of a child-hooker into a shiny, beautiful violin, whose cords are sensitive even to the slightest gust of feeling, constantly vibrating, sympathy becoming telepathic.
It’s one of these all-nighters. Nicos has just returned from a long day with Nina and he writhes and squeals like a stuck pig on the sweaty sheets. Sophia places a wet tank top on his forehead, to ease the feverish feeling of pain. For the first time she looks worried, not suggesting any concoction of her grandma’s.
Nico boy, she says. Maybe – maybe you should go see a doctor.
He grabs her hand, squeezing like a woman giving birth, his teeth clenched. Having to fake healthiness for Nina’s sake is even more exhausting than the disease itself. But he has no choice; if he lets go now it’s game over. I don’t know... he says, breathlessly. I don’t think they’ll be able to do much. I believe it’s psychosomatic.
She frowns at the word.
It means it may all be in my head and nothing’s really wrong with me.
You mean, crazy like?
Something like tha – arghhh... He tosses, groans.
Well, you must be crazy, she says, chidingly. I mean, stayin’ at this dump when you got a lump of gold bigger than my head.
How do you –
Whad’ya think, bozo? Yesterday, as I was goin’ through your stuff lookin’ for some clean underwear, I picked up that ridiculous red sissy bag o’ yours and then I felt it, almost pulled a muscle it weighed so much, and so I look inside, underneath the clothes, and whad’ya know! Nicoláki is livin’ in the slums, carryin’ around this huge chunk as if you was some gold digger or somethin’. I mean, how crazy can you be, not putting it in a safe-deposit box?
Nicos is astounded, despite the pain. This really is another world, he thinks. Because Sophia seems to be the proverbial hooker with a heart of gold, taking care of him and sticky-fingerless to the extreme.
I mean, with that kinda dough it’s stupid, not seein’ a doctor when it hurts so bad. It might be the evil disease, you know.
(Which one? Take a pick). If it is, I don’t wanna know about it.
She lights a cigarette from her own pack, pungent vile tobacco without a filter tip. That I understand, she says. I don’t trust ’em myself, doctors; always wanting to find somethin’ wrong with you, to show you how clever they are. You know they’re the main reason I never got a professional license? They make you go to the hospital every other week to check the old taximeter and stick their fingers up your hole, as if I don’t get enough of that. Sugar, you wanna tease my pussy, you gotta pay.
The idea of someone else’s pain helps diminish his own; he sits up, lights up himself and says, You never told me – do you make ’em wear a rubber?
Yeah, right! she says, laughing. Like I care where they’ve stuck their dicks before! Nico honey, lemme tell you, us women, we’re all swimmin’ in the same shit. Besides they can cure almost anything these days – syphilis, the clap, even TB, you name it, they got a pill for it. Only thing can’t be cured if you’re dumb enough –
Yeah, yeah, I know, cancer.
Don’t say it, stupid, it’s bad luck! She knocks three times on the wooden nighttable. But still, I believe you oughta go see a doctor about this thing of yours.
And you gotta promise me you’ll start using condoms.
What for? You know I can’t have babies, plus no one’s crazy about my poor old cunt – it’s way too worn-out, and anyway, that much they can get from the missus. What they want from me is mostly head and a little rear action.
(Oh God). All the more reason why you should make them wear a rubber!
Why, you worried my ass’s gonna get pregnant?
Listen to me! You simply must use a condom. I’ll buy them for you!
She puts out her cigarette and cups her hand around his jawline, looking in his eyes. Baby, if you really care so much about me, go see a doctor about this goddamn condition o’ yours and then marry me. We can buy us a nice lil’ apartment with that gold you got lyin’ around and then it’s no more ass-fuckin’ for me, with or without the rubbers you’re so crazy about. And trust me, I would love the idea of not bein’ fucked anymore, I’ve been dreamin’ of marrying a fag ever since I was a little girl.
Nicos doesn’t pursue the matter any further; there’s no saving poor Sophia. Also, he’s been greatly surprised by how much the gold is worth. It’s silly and probably impossible to pull off, but the idea of buying a house that will exist in a world in which he won’t is intriguing; a ghost house in some nascent suburb, kids playing in its overgrown yard and saying, No one’s ever lived here – My mom says the guy who bought it was a foreigner who paid in gold – Maybe he was KGB – They say at full moon you can hear his ghost moaning – I bet he was a vampire.
And all the while Nicos bides his time, counting the days, making sure the changes in his existence’s prequel are permanent and irreversible.
The only way to be absolutely sure, of course, is by monopolizing Nina’s time, and this he does with passion, obsessively and self-sacrificingly. Having never experienced the joys of a love affair, this conquest of another’s heart excites him beyond measure, even if it’s his own mother he’s courting and showering with presents and affection. The look on her face, lighting up as she receives an expensive watercolours kit or John Fowles’s The Magus or a 1990 coffee-table book of Vermeer’s complete paintings, with forty colour illustrations (and the first page torn out) – these moments of girlish enthousiasm, when she hugs him and kisses him on the cheek and utters breathless little shrieks of bliss, soothe the guilt in his black heart, and make him forget the other parent, seeking and perhaps not finding whom he was meant to find.
He’s not even sure anymore that his chaste flirting is standing in the way of a monumental love. Nina has transformed the dusty crypt into an adorable nest, with numerous candles burning here and there, stuck in empty bottles (the late painter had a thing for Martini Rosso, the bottles of which he never threw away), a patchwork eiderdown that has made a cozy settee of the cot, as well as an assortment of books, drawing pads, cushions, kilims and floral-print post-hippie mini dresses hanging from nails, diverting the eye from the fact that the place has only a tiny rattling sink, an old wardrobe and a boiler that takes an hour to produce ten liters of lukewarm water separating it from a medieval hovel. Nicos feels welcome in this home, he feels wanted and valued as a friend and even – although the thought is disquieting – loved by Nina, who acts as if her new life in Athens is marked solely by their friendship. So, she’s safe from his father and safe too from himself, as it’s not in an eighteen year-old virgin’s hand to cross the threshold of intimacy, no matter how educated and clever she is. When once he’s left alone while she goes to the Pláka to buy them cigarettes, he leafs through her diary (he never knew she kept one) and despite the heartbeat finds out that there’s no cause for worry. Nicos is a wonderful person, she writes, and I feel truly blessed to have met him. He’s selfless and sweet and has never made any advances, which makes him even more admirable. I really feel secure when we’re together, it’s like being with a gentle spirit, a spirit of this frightening city, who’s come to guide me and teach me and show me the way. Sometimes I think he’s too good to be true – not in a bad way, but as if he isn’t real. It’s true, then; Nina’s heart has been stolen but in a way completely different than the one which led to this pathetic offspring of hers. And maybe this was bound to happen anyway, maybe in this world she was a fundamentally different person, one open to other possibilities besides the ephemeral delight of infatuation; which would make his journey pointless and absurd.
However, Nicos is glad to have come all this way; he is at peace. One cannot demand physical tenderness from a spirit other than light pecks on the cheek or a hand caressing the shiny black maternal hair; one cannot make love to a man who isn’t real. All that’s left to do now is wait, for just a few more days.
And the days pass, and when the dreaded second day at school brings no mention of a swarthy boy with amber eyes who’s in the same History of the Renaissance class as she and who asked her when the lecture is over if she’d have a cup of coffee with him and told her how much he loves Masaccio’s Expulsion from Paradise, Nicos’s heart is filled with screaming joy: the portentous date, 11/9, has come and gone without emotional incident besides Nina’s profuse thanks after he’s taken her to see Juliet of the Spirits. The battle against destiny is won; he has molded a Nicosless future. And as for the gnawing guilt towards his father, it’s an irrelevance. Nothing is predestined; Yanni, initiated to the pleasures of love at sixteen by Marianne, his French tutor (at an age when sexual harassment, and especially that committed by a woman was unthinkable), is, by his own future admission, a young Don Juan. He’ll find happiness.
An autumn shower has erupted and ceased, tantrumlike, and the sun, having baked the ground and the wooden benches to dryness, plays now with the remaining clouds like a cosmic rheostat.
The verdant oasis of Zappeion Park, spreading between Hadrian’s Arch and the Parliament building as a reminder of things far more eternal than the works of man (such as mud, or chlorophyll) is bursting with life: young lovers, walking hand in hand, family men with cushiony wives and hyperactive children, enjoying the hearty smell of plant life and ozon and the furtive glimpses of younger, prettier version of their wives and of themselves, as well as a multitude of dog-walking people, vendors of water ice and sunflower seeds, and nannies pushing strollers and hoping to be able to meet, away from inquisitive eyes, the soldier or sailor boyfriend for some hasty kissing and sighing – a crowd that wanders amid the rows of sycamore, poplar, and angelica bush, resting on a bench now and then to have a smoke and bask in the sun.
Nina and Nicos are sitting on a bench. She’s feeding cookie crumbs to a flock of ravenous pigeons cooing around her feet, while he sits back, with eyes closed, relishing the nicotine and the absence of pain. It seems that, obeying perhaps to some superior force of karmic harmony, the cancer has been in remission for the past couple of days; he knows this won’t last, of course, it can’t, but it is nevertheless a blessing, this pause, this silence after the deafening internal cacophony. He’s been off the methadone, to make sure it will last him, and apart from some morning headaches, a bit of extra wooziness and one or two minor incidents of diarrhea, there hasn’t been much of a withdrawal. Now that druglessness has brought back the necessary soberness, he’s had a chance to revel in his mother’s company, to appreciate her devotion and acuteness of mind. He feels proud, in a way, to be the son of such an intelligent, kind, compassionate creature; through half-closed lids he observes her grinning face as she feeds the obese, flying rats that pigeons are, and he’s reminded of the fact that she never got over the habit of feeding them; even in her fifties, whenever she was downtown, to drop by the Sunflower or to have coffee or lunch with him, if a stray pigeon happened to wander by their table she’d immediately start throwing bread crumbs or bits of cheese or even shreds of meat to it, fascinated like a tourist setting foot for the first time in the San Pietro or the Trafalgar Square or any such place infested by this winged companion of the Babylonian goddess Ishtar – the only bird that doesn’t have a strict mating season but fucks and reproduces randomly and for the purpose of pleasure. When she’s run out of cookies she touches him lightly on the shoulder to ask for a cigarette and says, I know it’s silly but I can’t help it, I think they’re so cute, strutting around – I mean, they’re so fat and lazy they won’t even fly! Nicos nods sleepily, though he disagrees; he’d like to be able to tell her about Patrick Süskind’s The Pigeon, and how much he sympathized with the paranoid protagonist and his aversion to his avian nemesis, but the book won’t be written for at least another fifteen years; moreover, there’s something in his blurry field of vision that he finds far more interesting than the greedy mangy birds – or rather, someone.
Nicos has read about these things and listened to his friend Alexis’s first-hand accounts, but as was always the case with him, he’s never tried it himself; he found the concept terrifying. Yet in a country like Greece, which in the Seventies (and sadly, in the Zeros as well) was ruled by the backward morality of religion, outdoors cruising was the only unfailing way of meeting someone to have casual sex with; the park’s ambience, its darkness and liveliness – the sounds and the smells like a subliminal message, declaring that what nature produces is as normal and acceptable as life itself – had been providing a population who lived and loved as if cursed, on the fringes of society, with a haven, a fragrant safety from condemning stares and inhuman oppression. The Zappeion and the Field of Ares were reputed to be brimming with anonymous potential lovers night and day, strolling around under the pretext of walking their dogs or reading the paper but who, upon the slightest meaningful glance or half-smile, were ready to follow you behind a wall of vegetation and transport your libido to Mars.
Therefore, now, to the pleasures of relative well-being and Nina’s presence and the sweet breeze and the sunshine is added another – the suspicion that a certain bronze-skinned youth sitting on the park bench opposite to theirs is one of those daring cruisers. Nicos has only vaguely glanced at the boy (he doesn’t want to appear too wakeful, because he will then have to participate in Nina’s heated soliloquy, which has moved on to the topic of Flaubert), but a single look was enough to assure him that he’s beautiful, and most certainly gay: he’s wearing roughly-hemmed jean shorts, the length of hotpants almost, a bright red tank top, and on his feet a pair of leather sandals, the laces of which are knee-high, wrapping around the whole of his sun-roasted, muscled calves – the kind of footwear Hermes is depicted in. Of course, there’s a chance that this sort of outfit wasn’t too outrageous by the posthippie standards – he’s certainly seen both men and women on the street dressed in clothes which back in the 21st century would only be accepted as a costume –, or maybe he’s having a slight case of what Alexis jokingly referred to as the UFOs: the Underfed Faggot Orgy syndrome. But Nicos believes this is an off chance; this isn’t wishful thinking, he’s not imagining things. For every now and then, when he’s not ostentatiously glancing at the newspaper spread upon his lap or fidgeting with a long piece of bark, the boy is fixedly looking at him.
Nicos feels a delicious terror as ripples of pleasure travel below the waist, hardening his cock. Luckily, today he’s not wearing tight-fitting jeans, or he’s sure it would show, so much has the young thing aroused him. As he absently replies to Nina, who wants to know his opinion of L’éducation sentimentale (which he’s never read), he tries to unthink the fact that he’s talking to his mother while having an erection, Stop torturing yourself, he thinks, this girl is not your mother, she’ll never be, try and relax for God’s sake and enjoy the hard-on, who knows, maybe it’s meant to be your last. So, stealing one final glance at the boy, who’s now staring at him, smiling and beckoning and scratching the stick he’s holding in his hand with a softly rustling sound, the sound his cock would make if he unbuttoned his incredibly revealing shorts, freeing it from its prison and thrusting it into Nicos’s hand, his mouth, his ass, thinking about this youngster who, though clearly available, is bound to be as inexperienced as he, as susceptible to the tremors of lust and to its instant release, he moves his left hand inside his pocket and with a couple of strokes reaches the peak of this ghostly copulation.
His eyelids flutter like butterflies caught in the visceral wind of orgasm. The sky suddenly darkens, casting upon the dark-haired beauty a shade of trees hugging one another, but as if the dream were not completed, and he demands physical closure, the boy gets up and starts to walk towards him. Nicos sits up, tries to locate his cigarettes with shaking hands. What if he noticed the restrained ejaculation and wants to talk to him, what if he makes a pass? What will his mother think? (as Zoì used to say about the openly gay). However, when the boy reaches their bench he stops, and Nicos sees he’s standing in the middle, as if to address the both of them. And then his panicked eyes move from the golden down on the boy’s naked thighs to the paper he’s holding, and he sees it’s not a newspaper after all, it’s a big drawing pad, and the stick wasn’t a stick, it was a piece of sharpened charcoal, with which he’s made a spectacular drawing of Nina and himself, sitting on the bench, and then he turns slowly and sees for the first time the boy’s familiar face and listens to the familiar voice as he tears the drawing from the pad, offering it to them and saying,
I didn’t mean to snoop, honestly I didn’t, but you two make such a lovely couple, I just couldn’t resist immortalizing you.
Nicos sits beside his parents, as mortified as a tewlve-year old striving to be cool.
And it’s only natural; because, in many ways, he’s excluded from the world into which these two pretty adolescents have dived headfirst. Yannis’s seemingly naïve approach was in fact a devious tactic of worming into his hard-earned tranquility – with one move, he’s stolen Nina from him. For how could they deny being a couple without making each other feel horribly awkward? How could they deny the company of an attractive boy, who had just offered them a portrait of themselves, indicative of a friendly interest and an eagerness to know more about them? The only possible reaction was to invite the smiling stranger to sit with them, to talk to him so as not to appear rude or needlessly aloof. But Nicos was too stunned to do any of these things; the horror of having just committed imaginary incest with his father, combined with the bitter realization of what Yannis’s objective was in the first place, had left him paralyzed. All he could do was hold the drawing with limp fingers, trying in vain to smile, while Nina, closer to age and mind to the newcomer, began talking to him.
It took only moments for her to become completely entranced by the young, skimpily dressed artist. The fact that he was in the same school as she and into his third year of studies was merely the seed of a fast-flowering fascination. Learning that his surname was Apostólou she asked him whether he was related to the famous cartoonist Judas – the pseudonym of Nicos’s grandfather, a tongue-in-cheek pun with his last name, meaning ‘disciple’ – and when he blushed and modestly admitted that Judas was indeed his father she nearly screamed with pleasure. She immediately started to eulogize his work and from there the heated discussion moved on to the subject of Seferis’s poetry, and his suspicious silence in the face of the regime all these years despite the eminence and the power the Nobel Prize gave him; then she asked him about the university and who was his favourite painter and Yannis naturally told her about the revered Masaccio and she shrieked again, agreeing with him that it was he and not the lumpy, anatomy-ignorant Giotto who was the true father of Renaissance painting. And soon they were laughing at each other’s jokes like lovers do.
So, Nicos sits mutely on the far edge of the bench, cradling the drawing in his hands and biting back his wrath. He watches the two of them, oblivious to his presence as they were the last time he saw them, once more secluded in their celestial fucking harmony, Nina completing Yannis and vice versa, yin to his yang, Nyx to his Erebus, two veg to his meat. It enrages him, how easily his father has outshined him and how easily his mother has responded to his obnoxious boyish charms, opening up like a silly flower, ready to abandon dreams of greatness at the drop of a hat, just to be able to talk with him, laugh with him, be with him. He wants to cry and scream and shake and hit her for having always loved him as much as his father, less perhaps but certainly not more, never more, he knows she did this out of another kind of love, to protect him, you’re not supposed to love your children as if you were lovers, it cripples them when they have to seek love elsewhere later on, but Nicos doesn’t care, Fuck you, he thinks, fuck you, you stupid, selfish cunt, thinking only how much you’d like to ride his cock until your ass is one with his tanned thighs, and here I am, me, your own son, who travelled through a million fucking worlds just to be with you and you still don’t give a fuck about me, your only child, your son, I was supposed to be God to you, you whore!
The passion of this silent abuse is so great that Yannis, sitting next to him (to keep us apart!) feels it, and realizing it’s somewhat impolite to ignore him for so long – or maybe he just wants to find out of what nature exactly is his relationship with Nina – he says, Hey man, you sure are the silent type.
Nicos turns to him, fighting hard to smile, to force an inkling of civility upon his voice which mustn’t come out as a howl. No, I just – I was just looking at your drawing, he says. You’re very talented.
Ah, it’s nothing really, says Yannis, with exaggerated self-effacement. I’m not that crazy about drawing as such – I only do it as an exercise. What I’m really into, although I haven’t actually tried it yet, but what I’d really love to do some day, is sculpture. To be able to create something tangible, as real as like a human being, something that lives, you know? (And his long, slender fingers, releasing for a second the drawing pad that rests like a sheaf of morality on the nakedness of his thighs, move through the air, caressing the slopes of yet unmade bronze-cast breasts, eliciting a dreamy look from Nina, a sigh of wonder). And I’m not talking about the modern stuff either, like Henry Moore and Giacometti and that kind of shit, I wanna be a real sculptor, you know, to be able to carve the metal or marble or whatnot down to the tiniest detail, to do stuff most people think is old hat, like Bernini – Bernini is god, I’d give anything to have a millionth of his talent. And then he starts to describe to the awe-struck Nina his last-year trip to Rome, and how amazing the Pietà is up close.
Bernini my ass, you arrogant little fuckhead – in ten years’ time you’ll be selling second-hand crappers for a living! The words are burning Nicos’s tongue, bilious hateful mashed jalapeños of rage he’d like to vomit on the happy couple’s faces. But the moment he thinks that, another terrible thought dawns on him: what if that whore Persephone was wrong? What if the universe, the Scope – whatever the fuck this is – is a one-way road, where every action can change the course of history? What proof does he have that his being here hasn’t fucked up his future completely, wiping out his existence from the single version of a unique reality? Does he hate himself so much that he wishes to destroy every proof that he ever walked the Earth? And what is he supposed to do now – quietly withdraw, or try and keep his parents apart? And how the fuck do I do that? he thinks to himself, despairing, clenching the accursed drawing. With cold, terrified eyes he looks at the twosome; Nina is asking Yannis how he manages to render the shadows on his forms as well as their minutest details and he says it’s just a matter of sharpening your charcoal so that it has both a blunt and a pointy edge, and from within the spiral binding of the drawing pad he takes out the long piece of charcoal and holds it towards her and she touches the point, hesitatingly, obscenely, and says, Oh my, it really is sharp, and they both laugh, and then Yannis says, I’ll let you in on a little secret about charcoal, you should never use an ordinary pencil sharpener, in art you have to return to the basics, do as the primitives did, and from the left pocket of his indecent shorts he takes out what Nicos could swear was the bulge of his cock but which is in fact an old Swiss Army knife, a present of Yannis’s grandfather to his father that was eventually passed onto Nicos himself (lying forgotten in the 21st century at the bottom of some drawer), but Nicos hasn’t been listening to what they’re saying, anger has deafened him, and as he sees his father pull out the blade and his ecstatic mother hold the rusty knife and smile, he thinks they’ve finally decided to put him out of his misery, they’ll just gut him like a fish here in the park and get it over with. Nina, grasping the knife with both hands, stands up and moves towards him; he closes his eyes, waits for the stabbing pain, the gushing hotness of blood; but when he looks again, she’s knelt on the ground, glances around to make sure no one’s watching, and then she starts to carve something on the green-painted wood, the empty seat that now spreads between Yannis and Nicos, uneven contestants in the fight for her heart; she carves a wobbly ‘N’, her initial; then a plus sign; Nicos looks as her struggling hand trembles – now the name of the truly loved one shall be revealed. (But it’s too early! For God’s sake! Maybe she’ll write all three initials, we’re such a jolly crowd!)
He’ll never know what the other letter was supposed to be. For as Nina begins to carve on the desired piece of wood – of her heart –, magically summoned by the cries of his soul, a cumulonimbus rumbles above them, the sun cowers, and from the greyness large tepid drops begin to fall, rapidly, hitting the hand that holds the knife, restoring the sounds of the world, into which a healthy boy, a healthy girl and a dying man jump up and run for cover.
Oh my God! screams Nina, with undisguised delight, as Yannis spreads the drawing pad above her head, not caring that the rain may soak his manly body. Nicos has instinctively crammed the drawing inside his shirt, to protect it – this sad memento of his failure – and runs behind them, feeling bitter and betrayed that mom hasn’t asked him to protect her from the rain, that Yannis had the drawing pad, that dad is the real man. He follows them helplessly as they run along Queen Olga Avenue, defying the storm with their piercing laughs, and tries not to ogle the flexing buttocks, barely covered in drenched denim, that belong to his own father.
His self-pity is so tremendous that he feels like crying, no one will notice the tears in this rain, no one will care if he suddenly leaps onto the oncoming cars, but then his mother’s voice is heard, its sweetness overpowering the noisy precipitation. Nico, where are you? she shouts, laughing. This is so much fun! cries Yannis, who has thrown away the soaked drawing pad and placed a possessive muscled arm around Nina’s shoulders. Isn’t this fun? (To have more fun is humanly impossible, Nicos thinks. Here I am, pissed at my mom for not flirting with me and getting a hard-on by looking at my dad’s ass. There aren’t words to describe how fucked-up this is). But maybe there are.
Where are we going? asks Nina, trying to wipe away the water that blinds her. Running at a crazy pace, they’re halfway to the Monastiráki train station. Yannis stands next to her, and seems to think it over. Listen, guys, he says. I know it’s a bit far, but if you don’t mind –
(Oh God no. No. No! )
– we could go to my place.
The twilight turns from amethyst to deep and deeper blue. The son of Dublin and Odyssey aficionado could have been describing the leafy suburb of Kiffisià, at the hour of day when the triad which may or may not become a family make their way to Yannis’s – or to their collective future – home.
The rain has stopped but the thunders linger in Nicos’s heart; he doesn’t know whether he wants to laugh or cry, to tremble or rejoice, to keep on walking or disappear among the shadows. If it were not his parents leading him, he’d never make it.
Yannis says, Here we are, then, and opens the heavy creaky gate, ancient and unpainted as Nicos remembers it; the garden, a mass of wet wild grass and untended bushes and bitter oranges is exactly the same – but then, Flora’s children have always been longevous; there is no animal that can outlive an oak tree.
They stand outside the door, the lights are on inside the stately house, and Yannis fumbles for the keys with slippery fingers in a drenched miniscule pocket. But then the door opens and Nicos is for the first time in his life reunited with the dead.
It takes him a few seconds to discern the details of the face in the bright yellow frame but when he does, he is amazed: the prison camp must have aged him terribly, for before them stands a stout, healthy man with a thick lion’s mane of greying hair, sixty if it’s a day but looking fifty. He has the expression of an angered idol. With one swift movement he turns on the porch light, frowning at the three young persons and then, raising an eyebrow he exclaims, Well I’ll be damned! Don’t tell me, lemme guess – you went and got this lovely young girl from Crete pregnant and now her brother wants to cleanse her shame in blood!
Nina and Nicos stare at him, dumbfounded, but then a quiver goes through the stern unhsaven face and grandpa bursts out in a fury of laughter, loud and melodious like a baritone’s aria. They have no choice but laugh with him, Nina pleasurably, Yannis with a hint of embarrassment, and Nicos scared shitless – he’s always resembled his mother very much, and now, with their hair slick and black from the rain they must indeed look like brother and sister.
Come on in, you silly kids, quick, grandpa beckons, you’ll catch a cold, these goddamn September showers can be tricky as hell!
They go inside, Nicos trying with all his might not to start looking around to see what’s different. Granpda takes him by surprise with a strong sudden handshake.
Hope you haven’t taken offence, my boy, he says. I’m just a senile old fool, I say all sorts of stupid things. It’s very nice to meet you and your lovely sister. And he winks at Nina. What’s your name, son?
Nicos is moved so much by the endearments that he nearly says his full name, remembering in the nick of time that it’s the same as grandpa’s. Nicos... he says. Nicos Papadopoulos. The commonest Greek surname; but at the same time that of the dictator. Granpda laughs even more loudly.
Oh God! We got the same name, kiddo, but I sure as hell hope you’re not any relation of George’s, or else I’m really screwed, talking like that in front of your sis!
I – I’m not his sister, says Nina, blushing. We’re just... friends.
(A stabbing. Just friends. How long you gonna stay just friends with Yannis?)
Oh, dear, I must be losin’ it faster than I thought, mutters Nicos the elder, scratching his two-day beard. Then he sees his son, who’s in the meantime taken off his soaked shirt and stands naked apart from the denim shorts and the knee-high sandals that curiously haven’t come undone. His roar is so unexpected, they almost jump. Oh my God, son, what were you thinking, goin’ out dressed like that? I mean, take a look at yourself! Jesus God Almighty! You look like a fuckin’ fairy! If I weren’t so goddamn short-sighted, I could’ve easily mistaken you for a girl in the street, I would’ve pinched your ass, boy!
It could be an awkward moment, but for some reason, profanity always sounded funny coming from grandpa Nicos. The three of them start laughing, even the gay grandson, he can’t help it, and then the old man joins the hysterical chorus, rumbling once more like a mountain spirit. Jesus fucking Christ – you goddamn sissy artists! he says, his face having turned crimson from so much laughter.
What’re you talking about? Yannis says, trying to suppress a hiccup. You’re an artist too!
Yeah, but you don’t see me running around in my underwear, showin’ off my legs like some fucking cabaret dancer!
If you got’em, flaunt’em, says Yannis, giving a high kick that’s half-cabaret and half-karate.
But then grandpa notices Nina, who’s been discreetly wringing her hair, and he erupts again. Fuckin’ hell, son, you are a lousy host! Just look at your friend – what’s your name, sweetness?
Nina, she says, smiling a mousey smile.
Nina here is gonna catch her death! You go upstairs at once and give her and Prime Minister Papadopoulos some dry clothes! Right now, young man – move it!
They go up the stairs, running and laughing, and as Nicos wonders with an ever-quickening heartbeat what this meeting with his beloved grandfather is going to bring, his voice echoes again through the hallway.
And make sure you give the girl somethin’ decent to wear, you hear me? I’m an old man with a bad heart, goddamn it!
They’re standing in his room, changing into Yannis’s clothes. Nicos is thinking, I grew up in this very room; I had my first nightmare here and jerked off for the first time; when I found out I was dying, this was the first place where I really fell apart and cried; and now here I am again, with my mother and father, older than them, undressing. Whatever its outcome, this journey is certainly an extraordinary one.
So as not to embarrass Nina, they’ve opened one door of the closet and he and Yannis are stripping on one side and she on the other. The drawing he feared would have become a black-smeared pulp has somehow survived the rain, miraculously intact – he places it on his shirt, which he’s put on top of the radiator to dry. They’re the same size, his father and he, but whereas Yannis fills the clothes with healthy, tightly-packed flesh, his body supports the jeans and T-shirt as a scarecrow would: skeletal and withered like a tall white moist plank.
Two girlish feet can be seen, moving in the space just underneath the closet door; they’re small and whitened from the wetness and the chill, marzipan-like, with toes that could be edible, and each of them leaves a tiny print on the polished wooden floor that disappears and reappears as Nina tries to find a suitable pair of slacks: the soles of her feet are alive, breathing in and out. Nicos looks away. But Yannis can’t take his eyes off of the dainty twin creatures, he’s been consumed by them, bewitched; with every imperceptible step they take, he shivers, as if it’s on his chest that Nina steps. And when she says, I’m ready – promise me you won’t laugh! he looks away too, but with a wide grin of pleasure, of fascination; even, perhaps, of love.
Nicos is dismayed by the speedy devotion. You can make sure someone won’t look – but that he won’t love?
They’re sitting all together in the living room, the same one used later on by his parents; the spacious drawing room covering the other half of the ground floor had been unused even before he was born. It was a sort of private cenotaph containing glimpses of Yannis’s late mother – impossible rococo furniture, display cabinets loaded with china and various other knickknacks that were part of her dowry – which grandpa avoided deliberately; though he was never a sentimentalist, her death by breast cancer just one year after they were married and when Yannis was barely able to walk was too painful to allow any sympathy for her material possessions. A photo of her in a gilded frame, resting on the mantle, was all that visually remained of her. And here it is, the ancient smiling face of this unknown grandmother, young as only the dead can be.
The last time they were in this room, his mother and father had been engrossed by one of the series that filled a whole bookcase – glossy DVD-boxes red and white and black, brimming with the passions and the unlawfulness of Americans. Now they’re lying on the carpet, shoulder to shoulder, eating from a bowl of mixed nuts and dangling their raised, mushroomy feet, while they watch with equal passion some early Greek series on the coffin-huge, black-and-white Grundig. Like most televisions at the time, rare and expensive as an ancient artifact or other decorative piece, it lies on a sturdy low table with a marble top, and underneath its bulk spreads a large yellowing doily, embroidered and placed there by Elpiníki – grandpa’s and father’s legendary nanny and housekeeper, a woman practically immortal (1887 – 1992). Nicos remembers the shriveled olive that was Elpiníki, dressed in perpetual black to mourn the death of her husband in World War Two, who continued to visit after the arthritis had ruined her potent hands, and he also remembers the TV, since it was the same one they had until he was seven or eight, when it was replaced by an equally humongous and pricey colour Philips. But if to him this is merely a relic, to his teenage parents it’s an enchanting futuristic wonder; Nina is especially awed, as she has never been so close to a television before; her idealistic father considers it to be a tool of the Americans’ insidious imperialist propaganda (ignorant of the bitterly appropriate fact that the first television transmitters were constructed by Vladimir Zworykin, born in Russia but a naturalized American). It’s yet another sign of the undercurrents silently blowing between the two of them, of the affection that can easily build up; and it has also split the company of four into two distinct groups: the kids with their idiot box and the grown-ups, sitting on either side of the fireplace with a cigarette and a glass of dry red wine, engaging in grown-ups’ conversation. Nicos is deeply resentful; he’s only thirty-three and absolutely petrified by the idea of having a discussion with grandpa during which he won’t be sitting on his lap, but finally there’s a hint of poetic justice: when Yannis asks for a ‘ciggie’ and a couple glasses of wine for Nina and himself, his father throws a folded newspaper at him, calling him a bum for daring to smoke in front of his old man and saying that there might be some lemonade in the fridge and that it’ll have to do, since they’re both too young to be drinking and it can only end in tears, pregnancy and marriage.
Kids these days, eh? he says, gruffly. I hope you weren’t such a prick to your folks. Or were you? I’m askin’ cause your hair is a bit longish.
Oh no, I was the ideal son, says Nicos, wondering if he’s blushing. My parents were very proud of me and we all loved each other. (This is lame beyond description).
They were proud? Why, you had a fight or something?
(Now I know where dad got his annoying nit-picking habit from). No, we still get along fine. (It’s just that they’re living in another world, in the not so distant future, trying to locate my corpse to bury, while I’m here, trying to break ’em up before they fall in love).
That’s nice to hear. A sip of wine; a puff, a cough. You got any real brothers or sisters?
Me? No. I’m an only child, I’m afraid.
You’re right to be afraid. Only children turn out wretched – look at that lil’ bastard of mine, twenty years old and still runnin’ around naked, like a spoiled brat. He utters the last words quite loudly, but Yannis is too caught up in the period TV-drama and doesn’t hear him. His father picks up the tangled newspaper and throws it at him again. I’m talkin’ to you, you little piece of nudist crap! Still no reaction. Oh, to hell with you! He turns again and pierces his grandson with his grey-blue eyes, the eyes Nicos has always regretted not having inherited. Whispering, he adds, You know, if the mother o’ this here bum hadn’t died so young, I would’ve had ten children – the peasants got it right; at least I’d have someone to take care of this dump and cook some real food every once in a while. Then he reclines on his chair and his tone changes once more. So, Mr. Only Child – you didn’t tell me where you’re from.
Nicos repeats the same lie he told Nina: born and raised in Athens, living in London for the past ten years.
London, eh? You don’t say... He scratches his beard. Well, I guess that’s where you got this healthy complexion of yours. No offense son, but you look like a corpse.
(Thanks, granpda; I am one). But he has to smile.
And why’d you come back? Business or pleasure? Before he has time to answer, his grandfather raises a hand and adds a poisonous joke. Be careful what you say, Nicolì – these are nefarious times we live in; if it’s business, then you’re doin’ business with the Colonels, and if it’s pleasure, it means you think the junta is lovely.
Nicos doesn’t quite know what to say; he’s afraid to elaborate on his lie – he might get caught out; grandpa was fearfully well-read and travelled. It’s a small wonder he hasn’t asked him about life in London.
However, he’s again saved by the old man’s swift change of mood. He chuckles, refills both their glasses, and says, Ah, you don’t have to humour me. I know you’d rather be sitting with these two and watching this idiotic apparatus than havin’ to talk to an inquisitive old fart like myself. It’s just that I’m curious about what this fucked-up world might look like through the eyes of someone young like you. I mean, d’you think it’s so shitty that it can only change for the worse?
Perhaps it’s time he gave a trick answer to these trick questions; he’s been to the future, after all. I think there’s hope, he says. People will always dream, and one day some of these dreams may come true. Even in such cases as the Berlin Wall –
Ah, don’t tell me about the Berlin Wall. I’ve been there and seen how they live. Bucharest too, it’s even worse there; the poor bastards, they’ve been reduced to begging, whole nations of beggars, what with their Stalinist shit and Mother Russia, the chief madam o’ the Soviet bloc whorehouse. They dream, you’re right about that; but they’ve been living in such poverty, Nico, such ugliness, that their dreams are short-lived ones: they dream of smokin’ a decent cigarette, where the tobacco doesn’t fall out if you turn it upside down. Ever read Nineteen Eighty-Four? Remember those cigarettes they had? They got the same ones in Romania, the exact same ones! And as for the tobacco – a pack can give you cancer, lemme tell you. I remember when I was leaving, at the train station, people came to me and begged me to give them whatever lei I had left, anything, paper, coins – to me it was worthless, but they could buy a litre or two of cheap cologne to get drunk on. The Berlin Wall... He snarls with disgust, downs his wine and extinguishes his cigarette with vehemence on the crystal ashtray, as if he feels guilty about the quality of tobacco in Communist countries.
Nicos would like to tell him about the day the Wall fell, which he still remembers, but the memory of the overjoyed Berliners on the TV evokes another, darkest memory. With a splitting pain equal to that the graffitied cement at Checkpoint Charlie might have felt if it were alive, his intestine performs a monstrous peristalsis that sends him scuttling to the stairs, before he has time to excuse himself or ask where the bathroom is.
The last time I sat on this toilet, he thinks, my feet didn’t reach the floor; also, back then he didn’t shit steaming blood. He’s taken care to undress, to avoid any messiness, but he couldn’t restrain himself from looking inside the bowl; another Jackson Pollock. It’s disappointing, really, not to mention gross. Although he’s read that all animals instinctively check their stool, as a simple way of assessing their health. That’s it, he’s just a sick animal. No reason to be ashamed.
Yet nature has spared most of the other animals the pains of memory. And Nicos can’t forget the fact that once he too was healthy, that there was a time, not so long ago, when he’d sit at this exact spot, in this very house with these three people talking and laughing downstairs, and feel secure in their presence, their love a relief almost as physical and necessary and pleasurable as the one achieved on the porcelain throne. How could he have lived such happiness and not known it?
He closes his eyes, smelling the familiar maleness of father and son in the air he hasn’t fouled – his bloody excrements are odourless as a ghost’s; an undertone of old-fashioned cologne: grandpa’s Pino Silvestre, dad’s Aqua Velva. He pulls at the invisible cogwheels of time, begging to be transported to that age of feet-not-reaching-the-floor, of going downstairs and being once again these people’s treasure, their heart and soul and not some dying stranger.
As September unfolds, revealing its bipolar nature, – the greenhouse effect hasn’t yet reached its zenith, and there’s still such a thing as a Greek autumn – Nina and Yannis become bit by bit inseparable. There’s no denying their mutual attraction, although there are so many things binding them together that the erotic element can hide behind a variety of pretexts: they are contemporaries, students at the same school, sharing the same interests, likes and dislikes, favourite bands and pastimes. They listen obsessively to the early Pink Floyd singles, a mania incomprehensible to almost any person whose coming of age occurred after the Wish You Were Here album and to whom hallucinogenic drugs weren’t a forbidden paradise but rather a thing passé; they’re both passionately against the Vietnam war, they have an idealized notion of the Palestinian plight and the actions of the PLO, and they’re quite concerned about the unsteady status quo in Cambodia. These feelings, which most people their age also share, are of course a sublimation of their unspoken physical desire for each other, in a world that has just begun to regret the carelessness and the promiscuity of the Sixties, and in a smaller one, the world of Greece, where prudishness still runs high, and where fear of sex without the blessing of the Church and removed from procreation is almost genetically inherent, as impossible to overcome as an atheist’s refraining from, in moments of anger, the use of the word God.
But there is time – and lots of it; their attraction can only grow and ripen, until it bursts and its darker core is acknowledged, until the timid hand goes further than the nape of the neck and the friendly pecking becomes kissing, hungry and sloppy and dangerous. It’s there, this first kiss that will rock their world and send them tumbling into their future love. And plotting secretly against it, fighting as hard as they do their own urges, desperate as one who’s trying single-handedly to stop an earthquake, a volcano, a tidal flow, is their beloved unborn son.
Nicos, who never knew himself to be a gambler, feels and behaves exactly as a pathological gambler would: he knows the odds are against him and yet he refuses to cut his losses and give up; he won’t sit back while the roulette of the Scope denies him his unlucky colour, black, bringing red after red after red. Fuck love, he says to himself, I’ve lived without it long enough, I’d live to be an old man if I’d avoided any contact with its infested advocates. I can beat this thing, I’m older and stronger and wiser.
However, there’s a world of hateful practicalities standing between him and his goal: being older and wiser, he can’t tag along with his teenage parents all the time, he can’t be the fifth wheel, following them to class every morning and to every nightly diversion; he’s too conspicuous in their company, too self-conscious, or simply too bored (a visit to the Sunflower’s predecessor one night made him wish that Nixon would choke on his steak, and that Syd Barrett would be strangled with the strings of his own guitar). Whatever ground he’s managed to cover with Nina, the result of copious discussions and thoughtful present-buying and constant fabrications, Yannis seems to have conquered overnight, with the ease provided by sexual attraction. Nicos knew this was bound to happen sooner or later; he’s had enough women semi-friends in his life to know that there’s a limit to how intimate a connection between a man and a woman can become when the element of sex is missing; he knew that some day, perhaps even before he croaked, Nina would get tired of the interminable talking and wish that something be done to her, whoever the doer and whatever the doing; he just couldn’t possibly predict that she would live the same love story all over again, with the same person – the universe was really unimaginative.
He counts the days and tries to remember whether his parents ever confided in him the exact date of their first episode of intercourse; had the deed been done in September, or did it happen later on, obeying to the Greek saying ‘When it’s cold, let’s tightly hold ’? And did he screw up the pattern with his ten-day intervention, or will the delay in their destinies only help to kindle the fire? (His father looks particularly determined and provocative, with his skintight jeans and his snug shirts unbuttoned to the navel). Up until now he’s sure the young fools haven’t gone all the way; he’s known ever since he was a baby, rocking all alone in his crib while they rocked the casbah a couple of metres away, that his parents could never be in the same room without ceaselessly pinching and tickling and generally touching one another – once they were half an hour late to a dinner at their own house, while little Nicos entertained the puzzled guests with poems learnt at school. So as long as they’re not performing French kissing or fondling each other in his presence (which he’s certain they’d be doing if Nina wasn’t still a virgin), he’s relatively safe.
The supposed chastity, though, gives little solace from the panic he feels every time he climbs the long stairs to the Anafiótika, bringing sweets and wine and cigarettes, only to find a note in his mother’s handwriting taped to the door, saying that they’ve gone to this or that café or that they’ll be at the university library, studying together. He knows what this studying amounts to: lengthy discussions about budding genius Theo Angelopoulos, meaningful glances, and not-so accidental touching of the knees under the table. But what choice does he have? He can’t very well invite them to his imaginary suite at the Grande Bretagne; he can’t forbid them to touch, accidentally or not. All he can do – all he does – is sit on the same whitewashed parapet were he was sitting the first time they met and wait for Nina to return, even if hand in hand with Yannis, to show that she hasn’t forgotten him, that she still cares, and that somehow, although her whole being revolts at the thought, she’ll resist the temptation of love for his sake.
It’s at this crucial point that grandpa Nicos offers a solution.
Their first meeting is soon followed by many such visits, during which the old man takes a shine to this gaunt, soft-spoken namesake; no wonder he does. His lifelong dedication to his son’s upbringing as well as the solitary nature that any artist’s job imposes by definition have left him largely friendless. He never had the chance to befriend other married couples, and most of his bachelor-days chums and former lady friends seemed inappropriate company for the unusual role of single dad that he had chosen to embrace; the commercial success of his cartoons estranged him even further, since the artistic community of Athens, consisting mainly of struggling impoverished painters, was loath to accept a caricaturist as a legitimate member. The result was that the openness, sweetness and acuity of this man were wasted on the well-meaning but unavoidably immature friends and girlfriends of his son’s. But this kid Nicos is different – a character indeed. He’s the first in the succession of young people lounging in his home who doesn’t appear to be bored stiff by the merest hint of conversation made out of politeness, making it obvious that he’s there for his occasionally accessible wine cellar or his son’s collection of noisy records or this infernally tedious television that Yannis pestered him into buying. This boy (for he is very much a boy, though one who seems to have grown up too fast; there’s visible pain in his malnourished face) is always eager to listen to his stories, anecdotes, and various outbursts of generalized, old-man ranting; he even seems to enjoy himself, laughing with his jokes and relishing the obscenities, and when their talks wander to more serious subjects, such as music, literature or politics, he appears to possess a remarkable insight, one rarely expected from a man his age, suggestive almost of a certain kind of eerie, resigned wisdom.
And these feelings are enthusiastically reciprocated. Nicos is fascinated by this new, unhoped-for relationship with his grandfather. The fairy-tale aura that surrounded his childhood memories of him has quickly vanished, replaced by deep feelings of admiration and affection; grandpa Nicos has become a different person, or rather, he’s become himself, but without the passivity and the meekness forced upon him by the hardships of incarceration and then by the instant transition into the world of grandparenthood, of colourful talking heirlooms. The journey back in time has brought a vast improvement to what was already a loved one – which is more than can be said for his parents. Ever since they met, Nina and Yannis have polluted each other with youth, they have reverted to a state of perpetual giddiness and giggling and hushed confessions, displaying to their disappointed son all the inanity and the irritating impassionedness of postpubescence. Gone is the sensitive, kind, knowledgeable Nina; in her place lies now an embarrassing creature, prone to blushing and wide-eyed staring and talking not half as much as she used to, as she’s most of the time listening, spellbound, to the musings on life, art and love that the twenty-year-old Yannis has to offer. Nicos is appalled but there’s really nothing to be done, other than making sure the three of them spend as much time as possible in the Kifissià house.
His grandfather’s stimulating company and awfully good wine – the only kind that’s not laden with chemicals which upset his stomach – is not the only reason Nicos feels safe during these visits that often turn into all-nighters; there is a sense of family in the informal gathering of the four of them in the same room, and even if he’s the only one who can know this to be actually true, they all share a mood of amicability and closeness. Moreover, although he hates to admit it, the bonding he’s achieved with grandpa also helps tighten the bond between himself and Yannis, which otherwise – given his strange relationship with Nina or his perhaps evident sexual orientation – would be terribly frail. Even though he’s not lying on his stomach next to them, watching TV or discussing classes and lectures and the difficulties of term papers, while he may keep their elderly host company it’s still clear that he’s part of their group, that they haven’t left him out as he’s so often felt in the past, when he was a boy and they’d already become one. Also, and this is by far the most sordid acknowledgment, he remembers his mother once telling him about the practical obstacles they had to overcome before she and his father made love for the first time, the greatest being the intimidation grandpa’s mansion caused her, along with an insurmountable feeling of deference towards the old man; she couldn’t just make out in a famous artist’s home, no matter how much in love she was with his son or how welcome she was made to feel. And on the other hand, despite her proclaimed emancipation, when push came to shove she was still a child of her times, reluctant to invite a boy she knew less than a month to spend the night at her place. Of course, it was finally in the Anafiótika that the deflowering took place – it was more private, a love nest, it was theirs. So Nicos is relieved when his daily suggestions that they hang out at Yannis’s place meets with acceptance. Perhaps they’re too embarrassed or too polite to shun him, after all he was there when they first met, it almost seems as if he’s the one who brought them together; but be that as it may, spending time in grandpa’s house at least assures him that they won’t be making any untoward Seventies whoopee. (It’s sad, really, unless one chooses to view his abhorrence as a freakish Oedipal regression; Nicos does exactly this).
It is a balmy autumn evening and the aroma of the garden is impossible to resist. Grandfather and grandson have moved to the spacious verandah without the intervening generation, who have retreated further inside, to Judas’s sanctum in the basement, and are going through scrapbooks containing his carefully preserved original cartoons, among which are scattered – as Nicos well recalls – numerous explicitly pornographic drawings, made for the creator’s personal amusement (and perhaps that of his son). The seclusion of his parents could be a cause for concern, but every now and then the voice of Nina can be heard, exclaiming in screeches of girlish shock, or laughing with Yannis over some of the hilarious caricatures. Moreover, to rest again on the comfy bamboo couch – rendered timeless with the occasional replacement of the cushions –, bathed in a splendour of shadows and smells as the starry dome continues to deceive the eye by seeming to revolve around a lazy Earth, it is impossible to worry about anything. Grandpa has opened a bottle of Elpiníki’s home-made black currant wine which is miraculously soothing to the stomach, and as they sit and talk Nicos can’t help wondering whether the disease wasn’t a figment of his imagination after all; he feels so calm and happy and complete that maybe nothing’s missing, neither health nor hope – maybe the virus has simply vanished, defeated by the pressing reality of a time and place where it had never existed, and he is free to enjoy life at its fullest.
The subject of tonight’s conversation encourages such thoughts of omnipotence and greatness: Nicos Senior and Nicos Junior have been discussing the Big Bang and the subsequent creation of the cosmos; after a while the grandson, sensing the older man’s passion, takes little by little the reins of this exchange and the roles are reversed – now he is the talker and grandpa the avid listener, which gives them both even greater pleasure. Nicos has been elucidating on the birth of distant galaxies, which still occur with every passing second on the borders of infinity; he describes the spectacular colours, the brightness of the new-born stars, and the wondrous condensation of what was formerly shapeless chaos into a frenzied matrix of geneses, breeding each moment new solar systems and perhaps new life forms, who exist in dimensions so faraway as to be almost close to our own, like the two ends of a closing circle. When asked by his excited host about the source of all this amazing knowledge, he claims that a friend of a friend, an astronomer working at the Mauna Kea Observatory, has sent him colour pictures of the astonishing explosions of primordial matter which may very well resemble the moment of the original Creation. In truth his discourse is a memorized text from Time magazine, and the vivid descriptions of stars bursting like tiny eggs out of huge pillars of golden galactic cloud are approximations of the famous Hubble snapshots. There’s no harm in giving grandpa glimpses of a future he won’t be around to see happen. (Or will he? What if he succeeds in keeping Nina and Yannis apart? What if there never arises a reason for grandpa to stand trial, and he never goes to Áyios Efstrátios, and lives to be a ripe old ninety? Will he remember that some mystery man, long dead, once deceived him by telling him of a telescope that didn’t exist back then? But Nicos shoos the thoughts away, they’re flies polluting the black currant wine, sticking on the thick liquid of happiness with dirty legs. He’d rather think about the evaporating gaseous globules – so tenderly dubbed ‘eggs’). At twenty-two, when he had first read the article and seen the pics, he’d already decided that his life was going to be a lonely, sexless affair; he wasn’t going to have children, nor live a great romance. And maybe for that reason the story about baby galaxies had struck him as an omen, an epiphany; he had read and reread the toned-down jargon and marveled at the Technicolor, unreal aspect of this colossally real thing, and all the while he was thinking that it couldn’t have happened by chance, none of it could, neither the fantastic phenomena at the far end of the universe nor he, the humble unloved queer – it all had to be part of some greater plan, each action dictated by a benevolent entity with an exquisite taste in matters of fate and harmony. As for tonight, the bliss of spending a quiet evening with your beloved grandfather three years before you were born is reason enough to believe in the beauty of life, this byproduct of hydrogen or helium or whatever the hell had originally upset God’s stomach.
It’s in this spirit that he rises after a while and excuses himself to go to the bathroom. He feels woozy and he’s staggering a bit, probably from low blood sugar, but he doesn’t care anymore; if he passes blood then blood it is. The universe expands like a balloon, humanity is the crowd of angels dancing on the head of a pin. AIDS and death and afterlife – it’s all a big blah.
He grabs the handrail and begins to climb the stairs and then he notices the overwhelming silence. Cough-cough, goes heavy smoker grandpa from the verandah; whoosh – a distant car; and then a creaking, and breathing that tries not to turn into moaning and fails and becomes moaning, stifled by (a hand? whose is it?), coming from the basement.
Nicos retreats soundlessly and tries to listen; but they must be listening too, because the moment he cocks an ear the silence is resumed; the basement, the stairs, the whole house, is holding its breath.
He cannot take a peep, he might give himself away; and it’s disgusting, it’s vile and revolting, it literally is – he feels the oversweet wine rise in his throat. He closes his eyes, and as a child might scream, asking for a glass of water or to be cuddled in the safety of the desecrated parental bed, he hollers, Hey guys, you okay down there?
No giggling and no reply; only a hasty zipper and then footsteps.
It’s nine in the morning, a cloudy grey morning on 1 October, and Nicos is running both literally and figuratively: he hasn’t much time, he must hurry; and on the other hand, despite three methadone pills and two shots of Sophia’s tsípouro, the pain that claws at his insides is so ferocious, so blinding and irrational and madly disproportionate (impossible for his frail human mind to bear), that his feet propel him instinctively, as if he might get away from the inner beast, as if he could outrun death. It is a twofold alternating dread, the human condition; it’s not enough that we should fight in vain the infinite outside terrors that sooner or later turn our dear soft flesh into dust – once the psyche is maimed, the body is let free to devour itself even more speedily, welcoming the disease, spreading its legs to the microbes.
From the moment he heard his parents on the verge of their first, fateful fuck, Nicos’s body has been eating itself away: he couldn’t sleep, he couldn’t think, he couldn’t be (he could never be again!) The quietude and sweetness of moments before disappeared into a vortex of horror similar to the one described by antiquity’s Great Druggie, Saint John the Evangelist or whoever it was that feasted on the magic mushrooms of Pátmos. If dad was to plow mom and they were to live their fucking love story all over again then all was lost, the centre couldn’t hold, let the giant locusts in knight’s armour draw their poisonous scorpion tails and cut him in half, leaving him writhing and begging for death – he wouldn’t have to beg for long, anyway.
When Nina appeared on the verandah last night, it was clear that she was on the path of irrevocable attraction: she looked timid and at the same time wild, she was almost coquettish when she asked him to walk with her to the Kifissià train station. I’m not sharing a cab with you, her eyes said, you’re sweet but henceforth irrelevant, you are not a man to me, I’ve met a man and I’m sticking with him – I belong. And Yannis, appearing some proper seconds afterwards, was smiling with loathsome male pride, saying, I’d better stay if it’s okay with you two, I’ve got some reading to do, see you guys tomorrow, but in truth he was saying, Drool on, skinny old man, that’s right, you’re too old for my gal, I’m not afraid of you or your bizarre intentions anymore, she’s mine now, I’ve branded her like cattle with my kisses. Even grandpa (you traitor!), even he seemed to sense what was going on, for he shook hands formally, third party to third party, saying, It was fascinating, all this stuff about galaxies and so forth, we really must get together and talk some more, what do you say we meet downtown one of these days, I have to meet with my idiot of an editor anyway so why drag you all the way out here? Maybe you could show me those photos. And all the while, of course, he was telling him, Come on, man, let’s give the kids a break, they’ve got the hots for each other so bad they got a temperature, see how their eyes are all glazed and shining, wink-wink.
So he rode the abysmal distance to the Monastiráki station, wanting to talk to his mother but not daring to disturb her dreamy look, her eyes so lost as her head leaned against the window, gorging on the night and on imminent pleasures, that he couldn’t get to her even if he were screaming or crying or on fire. And then he walked her to her door silently and furiously, imploring the Great Unknown that she might invite him for a nightcap, to one of their lengthy, safe discussions about art, but she didn’t, she just smiled absent-mindedly, not even looking at him, and said goodnight and went inside and lit some candles. And Nicos sat on the parapet and smoked and looked at the light that trembled with expectation and desire, and thought about how in a matter of hours she and Yannis would be casting their four-armed, two-headed shadow on the walls, repainting the scenes of violent intercourse with their own. And still he didn’t leave, he sat there waiting until his mother had sighed enough or reached her desperate lonely orgasm, the last she’d ever have to suffer – since by tomorrow she’d be embarking on an eon of faithful regular drilling – and then blew out the votive candles. And he waited and waited and smoked and smoked until he was sure that she was asleep and that dad hadn’t snuck up on him for an arranged small-hours tryst and that only stray cats and owls and dying autumn insects were lurking in the shadows.
The sun was rising as he approached Hotel Óneiron, no dreams for Nicos, another solitary night, another daybreak, another broken day. The thought that he couldn’t even buy some love the way so many guests of this hotel did, that the one person who was supposed to love him infinitely had just thrown him to the wolves – it was more than he could stand. He lay on his back, staring autistically at the ceiling, and let himself be consumed by self-pity. And then the pain took over. He moaned and sobbed loudly, to make sure he’d wake Sophia, and she did come, and wiped away the tears and gave him some water and then pills and booze, and all the while she tried to soothe him like a baby. What is it baby, she kept saying, what, tell me, please don’t cry, oh, Nicolì, you’re breaking my heart baby boy, tell me what’s wrong and I will fix it, I promise I will, what, is it some boy, what, it’s not a boy, he’s older, no, okay, it’s not a guy, so tell me, what is it, if it’s a girl by God I’ll strangle the bitch, I’ll put her in the ground I will, she don’t know who she’s messin’ with, nobody hurts Sophia’s baby and gets away with it, but come on, sweetie, stop cryin’, here, you wanna play with my flabby tits, will that make you feel any better, cos I’m tellin’ you, your grief baby, it’s nothin’, nothin’, you hear me, at least you’re still young and pretty, hell, you’re beautiful, I wish I’d met a guy like you in fuckin’ Pelopónnissos, wait, I know what’ll make you feel better, I seen’ you holdin’ with that thing when you sleep, what, you don’t want it, okay, okay, don’t cry, here, hold this then, I always say money’s God because it can do anythin’, it makes you feel good, and trust me baby boy, this chunk here is worth a lot a money. See? You’re lookin’ better already.
And she placed the gold bar gently next to his face, nestled in the sheets like a newborn, for gold is always new, it’s timeless, as timeless as time itself. And Nicos took one look at it and knew what he must do.
The small hard box burns his hand as he holds it, safe inside his pocket. It burns with importance, purpose, power; Let’s see your stud do better than this, he thinks. It’s such a strong feeling it nearly makes the pain recede.
The gold merchant in his filthy mezzanine – both of them unchanged in thirty years’ time – was suspicious at first; the imprinted date on the bullion bugged him, it couldn’t be a glitch, he thought, nobody makes mistakes with gold, but after he’d weighed it and caressed it and finally scratched a few scraps and dissolved them with a drop of aqua regia he agreed to pay Nicos what must have been half the thing’s worth, throwing in as a bonus, he said, what he’d come looking for. Fine-looking rock on this one, he said, giving it to him with faked admiration. Nicos was certain some poor woman had parted with it in tears, probably getting a pittance for it, but he hadn’t time to feel sorry for anyone else right now.
He stands before the crosswalk of Stadíou Street, waiting for the traffic light to change. His bursting impatience is really rather close to what a man of his intentions might actually feel: he’s sweating despite the cold, his heart beats wildly, and he suffers from the irrational fear that some malign pickpocket may bump into him and steal his treasure. The island of Omónia Square, not yet a junkies’ leper colony, is filled with people at this hour of day – people going to work or to early business meetings or out shopping; it’s intimidating, ominous to the small hard box. And there seems no end to the flow of the blasted cars! Nicos feels such a rush he’s almost tempted to ignore the traffic light and run across the street, but the speed of the oncoming vehicles is too great; it’d be stupid to lose it all for a few seconds, childish, Come on, she’s probably still sleeping, he says to himself. But someone else in the crowd surrounding him hasn’t yet developed such a sense of self-control; a five year-old girl, waiting beside him and turning to look at him every now and then – her face somehow familiar, its sweetness known – suddenly does the unthinkable: pushed by the hands of childhood madness and its assumed invincibility, she lets go of her mother’s hand and rushes head-on into the street. It’s a second before Nicos sees out of a corner of his eye the suicidal leap but luckily there are no speeding cars at that precise moment to make a bloody pulp out of her, and as the startled mother (why did the girl escape her? did she force her into buying shoes she didn’t like? is she cruel to her, does she hit her, was the poor thing really trying to kill herself?) yelps in helpless panic, his hand darts and grabs the little girl from the collar of her tiny coat and all that remains of the avoided horror is an echo of the piercingly screamed name – Zoítsaaa!
Oh, no, Nico. Oh no, no, no. Oh God, Nico, no, you can’t be serious.
He looks at Nina, trying to mutate all his wretched pain into an expression of earnestness, one that says, Yes, I am serious, dead serious. He’d like to have been holding her hands when he uttered the monstrous words, it’s a tradition and thus a sign of power, but although she’d just got out of bed – it was 12.30, a bit early perhaps, but he simply couldn’t contain himself – she was alert enough to know that something was wrong, terribly wrong, that he was about to say something monstrous, and so her hands flew to her chest and then to her mouth even before he’d made the actual proposal, before her eyes glittered with terror, reflecting the engagement ring’s heart of brilliant-cut yellow diamond. All he can say in the face of such horror is, Why? Don’t you love me? The words are too eloquently stupid, they sum up all his self-inflicted drama, and thinking that he’s half-dead from cancer and has just been dumped by his own mom draws tears from his eyes.
Nina reacts in the only way her eighteen year-old mind can come up with to battle her panic and his sorrow. Whispering a river of, Of course I do and There, there, she embraces him and lets him sob on her shoulder, caressing his back as he convulses with a million different kinds of pain. After a while there’s a big spot of wet on her nightgown and Nicos, opening his eyes, sees that there’s a tentacle of snot attaching his left nostril to a lock of her black hair. He’s just embarrassed himself irremediably. But it felt good, crying, letting it all out while his mother held him, so that now he reverts completely to his infant soul and pulls away, angry, to demand immediate satisfaction.
The only reason you don’t wanna be engaged to me is because you’re in love with Yannis, he says, wiping his nose on the back of his hand and praying that she won’t notice the drying booger caught in her hair.
Her surprised stare kills him; so he’s right; she is in love with his father. Nina fumbles through some half-spoken words – she can’t hug him after the accusation has been made – and says, No, Nico, it’s not that.
I don’t hear you denying it. (Great. I’m a regular toddler). You do love him.
His mother may be young but she is smart, she worms her way out of the mess. Listen, Nico, please – Yannis has nothing to do with this. It’s completely irrelevant.
What is irrelevant? The fact that you made out with him last night under my nose? He regrets at once saying it; Nina looks positively hurt. She moves away from him, to the other edge of the cot, holding tight the neckline of her nightie, mortified to have been caught at the game of bestial love before even trying it.
Nico, I’m sorry, but I never meant –
You never meant to lead me on? Is that it? He’s older, he can play her. You never meant for this to happen, you couldn’t think that far? You couldn’t see I was interested from the moment I first saw you? That I was entranced by you? (Oh God, this is really getting sick).
She tries to smile but she’s shaking too badly; for a moment he fears that she too might start crying, if only to escape the rising awkwardness of the scene. Yet two can play the game of who-did-what. Nina, disguising her distress as best she can, takes a cigarette from the pack lying on the window sill and lights up. By the time she blows the first smoke she’s transformed, she has matured into a woman of experience. If you were that entranced, as you say, why didn’t you make a move? How come this is the first I ever heard about it?
Nicos is flabbergasted; being a toddler means your mom can beat you at mind games. The reason I never said anything, he says, is because I didn’t wanna push you –
Oh, is that it? She crosses her legs, she’s become evil, eyebrow raised, Kathleen Turner in The War of the Roses. You didn’t wanna push me?
Of course! Whad’you think? That I’d come on to you just like that, you being so young and... and vulnerable – why, I... it’d be criminal to take advantage –
She laughs. Oh come, on, Nicolì, really, now! Criminal? Don’t you think you’re goin’ a bit too far? I mean, I may be eighteen and from Thessaloníki, but I didn’t grow up in a convent, you know. I’m not that vulnerable, I know how to take care of myself, men have made passes at me for years. And besides, what could you do to me – it’s not like you’d rape me or something.
The certainty in her voice horrifies him. Does she mean that as a compliment, that he’s too much of a gentleman, or is she hinting at his harmless sexuality? Nicos, like many Greek gay men, has been living all his life with the dread that his mother should ever know of the closet in the house, that she’d even acknowledge its existence; and his mother, respecting this fear instinctively, had never once mentioned what to any mother must seem pretty obvious after a certain point. So he has been spared the humiliation, he’s always been a man in her eyes even if it’s a matter of appearances – she never cut his dick off by admitting that she knows. But now he’s unprotected; Nina doesn’t have to sympathize with a thirty year-old stranger; if she feels pushed around she may call a spade a spade and she can’t do this, she mustn’t, he can’t bear the thought of her saying it. He tries to digress from the topic of rape. It doesn’t matter what I did or didn’t do, anyway, he says. What’s done is done. It’s clear to me that whatever there was in our friendship that made it special you chose to simply throw away the moment you set eyes on Yannis. It’s okay, I understand – I mean, he’s younger than me, you two are the same age, you’re classmates and perhaps you find him more attractive than me. I don’t blame you; after all, this must seem terribly old-fashioned to you, proposing before I’ve had a chance to fool around... And with that he withdraws the jewel box and puts it back in his pocket.
Nina’s cigarette is coming to an end and so is the sourness in her expression and her voice. Oh, Nico, she says, our friendship is special, it’ll always be special. Like removing the kernel from a grape seed, she has removed the bitterness of his last words and held onto the sweet subject of friendship. It’s a trap, but Nicos realizes it too late – the ring has already disappeared and so has the proposal; it’s a silly thing that almost never happened. His mother comes closer and holds his hand, looks him in the eye; when he refuses to look back she holds his chin and raises his face gently. Look at me, Nico. Knowing you has been one of the most wonderful things that ever happened to me; there’s nothing I value as much as our friendship. I mean it. And I know it must be hard on you, no, more than hard, it’s unfair, after all the stuff you’ve lived and seen it’s only natural that you’d wish for someone to... to share things with. But that someone can’t be me, Nico, surely you must see, I mean, you might think I’m pretty and clever but really I’m just an ordinary girl, there are thousands out there like me, and – no, don’t speak, please, let me finish, I’m not saying this just to make you feel better, I mean it Nico, there are thousands of girls like me and even more who are better, who deserve this honour more than I do. And I mean this too, Nico, with all my heart I do, it’s an honour that you should even consider to propose to a silly bumpkin like myself, I mean, I’m nothing compared to you, I’m just plain ignorant. So I guess I deserve someone who’s more like me, and I’m not talking about Yannis, this doesn’t have to do with him, it’s just that – there’s a sort of balance in people’s destinies, Nico, right? And things can’t happen just like that, for no reason. That I met you and that you wanted me so much can only mean I really am special in a way; only not so much as to deserve you as something more than – than a friend, a very, very special friend. She gives his hand a squeeze, she smiles. And who knows, maybe when I’m older, and when I’ll have seen the things and read the books and been to the places that’ve helped you become such a wonderful person, maybe then the time will come for me to consider your proposal – to deserve it.
There’s nothing to be said after so much genuine kindness; even his dried tears are conspicuously dishonest in the face of his mother’s truthful confession. He was crazy to believe that he could ever win a woman’s heart and her body. Nina’s body he’s had for as long as he was living inside her womb, he can’t ask more of her, it’s inconceivable that she even had the strength to talk to him as a mother would, being fifteen years younger than him, that she didn’t crush him completely.
If only she weren’t so wrong, if only she knew. There aren’t thousands of girls like her out there, maybe she’s the only one who can show such compassion, who’s so worthy of being loved in a glimpse. If she hadn’t such a beautiful soul maybe he’d have loved other women – but she absorbed all the affection and the tenderness, so much so that at some point he really meant the ring and the engagement. And he also meant the jealousy, the hostility, the desire to crush Yannis and make him look like a good-looking simpleton with a raging hard-on. That’s another thing she was wrong about: there isn’t a trace of balance in anyone’s destiny; after this defeat, so easy and idiotic a defeat, he can’t seriously accept the notion of any man controlling his fate, or obeying to some sense of cosmic symmetry; the Scope is screwed-up, it’s a puppet show, the strings are hidden and awry and people stumble into people whom they should be able to destroy and are themselves destroyed again and again and again. So no one could avert the Holocaust; no version of himself could ever beat this little Hitler-turd Yannis – damned, cursed Yannis, who should die a horrible death. Nicos never knew there could exist a hatred so consuming as that which he feels towards his father.
It is a cruel, awful feeling, to have to admit the limitations of one’s own intellect; the moment when the office comedian realizes he’s the only one laughing with his jokes; the terror of having made an intelligently phrased pass at someone who rebuffs you, adding insult to injury and saying you’re both repulsive and stupid; and, above all, the horrible, loathsome forced epiphany, when one has just made a proposition which to oneself seems sound and doable and even profoundly inspired, only to realize by the hilarity he or she has caused that the proposed course of action – the mission, the fight, the dream – is in fact pure nonsense. It’s a small wonder that certain people beat or rape or kill other people, sometimes en masse.
Nicos feels this rage precisely, a murderer’s fury, when Sophia, after having listened to the scheme he’s devised (which he considered brilliant, a masterpiece of vengeance) breaks out in hysterical laughter. He’d like to strangle the cheap tawdry whore, he actually feels the blood rushing to his hands, to the fingers which he’d like to wrap around her throat and push and push – but unfortunately, his blood is too loaded with methadone, and though pumping with the adrenaline of malice he’s a bit low on serotonin; he’s too weak – his muscles, like the whole of himself, have no joy left in them. Sophia would probably kick his ass.
I’m serious, he says. I really need you to do this, please. But this only brings a fresh fit, she’s positively tetanic with mirth, she convulses and screams and slaps her knee and tears run down her cheeks. Nicos’s outrage turns into a resigned sort of sadness and self-loathing. It’s useless, he thinks to himself; there’s not a single woman in the world who’ll take me for real – but why? Is it the gayness? Am I such a screaming queen that women can only scream in return at my suggestions?
Sophia catches her breath, panting, wipes her cheeks on the sleeve of her stale-smelling dressing gown and says, Oh baby, I’m sorry – it’s just that – and another fit follows, a short one luckily; she sits up and speaks fast to resist the echoing spasms. It’s just that you reminded me of that actress, the thin one who always plays the wicked mother-in-law? The one who’s always breaking couples up with her lies? Come on, you know which one, she’s all pointy-faced and mean-looking and ugly, really – not that you’re ugly, baby boy, not at all, but you shoulda seen your face, I mean, you had such a mean expression just now, tellin’ me I ought to go and destroy this guy by havin’ sex with him! Ah, Nicolì, you’re priceless!
But why? Why do you think it’s so preposterous?
So what? She sniffs and lights a cigarette.
You know – outrageous. You think it’s not gonna work?
Baby, of course it ain’t gonna work! I mean, come on, who’s gonna fall for that? What, he’s royalty or somethin’? It’s just not possible, Nico love.
You’re ashamed to do it, that’s what it is.
Yeah, right! Me, ashamed? Why, you don’t know me at all, you innocent little birdie, you! You really think I’d be ashamed to go find your guy and hit on him? Baby, I been shakin’ the old moneymaker since before you were born!
Why won’t you do it, then? I’ll pay you, I’ll pay you double, triple – you name the price. He thinks he might get to her by teasing her female pride. Except if you’re worried that he won’t bite...
Bang, the nail on the head. Sophia snorts and crosses her legs, leaning a bit for her mountainous cleavage to show. You’re kiddin’, right? Worry a fifteen year-old will dump me? You talkin’ crazy, baby.
Same difference. Nico love, only reason I don’t play with kids is ‘cause they ain’t got the money for the honey; and it’s too damn easy, it’s ridiculous, it’s like stealin’ for Chrissake! I’m tellin’ you, you don’t even have to pay double or whatever – he’d be the one to pay, I’ll bet you anything.
So why don’t you go find him?
Because. She crosses her legs more tightly, covers the naked thigh; there’s a hint of shame after all. First of all, it’s just crazy; I mean, what am I supposed to do, go to this big villa of his in Kifissià and ring the bell and when the old man opens the door I go like, Oh, hi, I’m Sophia, you don’t know me but I’m friends with your son, or I’m gonna be in a couple seconds? It’s ridiculous.
You don’t have to go to his place. You could sort of bump into him –
Okay, and let’s say I do. Let’s say I go through with your nutty plan and we give the old pear tree a shake. So what? You think this chick of his gonna sweat? Nicoláki, no one gives a fuck if a guy does it with a pro; it’s not like we’re involved or something. You think my johns’ wives don’t know? They just don’t care, plain and simple. It’s the fuckin’ Seventies, baby boy, wake up – it’ll be two thousand before you know it.
Oh, trust me, it won’t, he says to himself; and take it from me, Sophia darling, don’t make such long plans; you never know when life’ll screw things up. Aloud he says, It’s different with these two. They’re both all head in the clouds, they think they’re in love but all they’ve ever done is kiss and make out; they won’t know what hit ’em, Yannis especially. Once he’s had a woman like you he’s gonna forget about Nina in no time, I know he will. He feels some measure of flattery is called for; all women like to think they’re sexy. Moreover, he can’t very well tell her that Nina will be so disgusted by the idea of a hooker that she’ll throw up, nor that he means to inform her – after the deed is done – about the zillion venereal diseases a whore may carry.
She stubs her cigarette out and resumes a slightly provocative, slightly aloof posture; her eyes have taken a curious shine, and so must her mind. There’s one thing you’re not tellin’ me, though.
Why is it so important that this girl Nina dumps what’s-his-name?
Yannis; good old Johnnie boy. It’s him, isn’t it?
What about him?
It’s him you wanna get back at. Whad’he do, let you blow him and then make fun of you, ratted on you to your folks? That’s it, am I right?
The thought is so revolting that the cancer acts up momentarily; but it’s only fair that he be made to feel sick, this whole thing is sick beyond description. It’s not about him, he manages to say.
Her face lights up, she is intrigued. It’s not the girl, now, is it?
Sigh. (I’m a one-man Gay Pride). Yes, it’s her; it’s always been her. And in a way he’s telling the truth – for if his mother hadn’t been so dreamy and full of herself that she had to migrate all the way down to Athens when there was a perfectly good Fine Arts School in Thessaloníki, if she hadn’t chosen to live in a place suggestive of and permissive to ravenous lust, former residence of a hooker and her male-prostitute son, and if finally she wasn’t such a complete idiot and had fooled around with the male population instead of settling for the first guy who ever hit on her (and who also happened to be the same sort of idealistic horny freak as she), then maybe he wouldn’t have had to travel back in time, he’d never have existed and so much the better.
Why d’you hate her so much?
I don’t hate her; I love her.
You love her but you wanna fuck up her life.
What, you’re gonna moralize me now? (Look at your own life, you piece of trash). And what’s this shit about her life? It’s not her fucking life I’m talking about, she just met the guy and she’s acting like he’s the fucking Messiah, she worships the little shit! I just wanna take him down a peg or two, that’s all.
She’s smoking a fresh cigarette; the tobacco reeks of cheapness. Oh, give the kids a break, won’t you? So what if she worships him? What is it to you?
I don’t have time to explain, this has to be done right away. Just trust me on this one – no matter what you think, it’s extremely important that you fuck him before she does. I’m fucking begging you!
You know, Nicolì, I hate to disappoint you, but screwin’ the boy ain’t gonna do nothin’ – if it was that simple, there wouldn’t be any more people on God’s green earth, or we’d all be the sons and daughters of hookers. Listen to me; he’ll still want her, because she’s young and because she’s playin’ hard to get.
But she isn’t! The girl’s a sitting duck, she’s drooling over the guy!
So-fucking-what? I just don’t get it! You say you love her so much, then fine, you go ahead and fuck her first, what’s the big deal?
I can’t and you know it.
Sophia laughs again, this time derisively. Come on, now, love, it can’t be as hard as that – people do it all the time, you know.
People do a lot of things. This is something else entirely. I can’t, I simply can’t.
Why – she ugly? Fat? What? She’s hairy? Oh wait, no, that would be a turn-on. And why d’you want her to yourself anyway? She’s the daughter of a millionaire or something? Is that it, she’s rich and you’re in it for the money, you wanna marry her?
The things she’s saying become increasingly insulting; Nicos has forgotten the disease, little by little he’s even forgetting the specifics of the plan, in his heart brews a seething poison of terrible feelings. Can we not talk about her? It’s him I want you to focus on. And I don’t need to explain myself to you. I don’t even know why you’re making such a fuss – I mean, Jesus! You’re the professional, you do the fucking.
Oh, is that so? she says, standing up and moving towards him; the cigarette hangs from her flakey lips, she sways her hips seductively, undoing the belt of her dressing gown. So what you’re really tellin’ me is that I should go fuck yourself, plain and simple, right? She’s meowing, she’s drawing her claws. Poor Sophia has to do all the fucking, she won’t even get a coffee break. Whad’ya say I start with you, then, big boy? I won’t even charge you – consider it a bit of practice for your beloved Nina. You’re not afraid now, are you?
In fact he is; there’s less than a metre’s safety between them, and as he’s remained seated on the bed, cornered, his eyes meet her naked belly and the bushy coppery pubes; he always skipped the scenes in porn flicks that showed too much labia (he found the wrinkly folds of flesh creepy and alien, they were like the protruding membranous toes of a baby stuck head-first in the vagina), and the sight of Sophia’s particularly meaty ones, purplish in colour and glistening, sets off a panic in his innermost self. He feels the reality behind the cliché – this really is a hole than can give birth and pleasure, nature wouldn’t have created such an astonishing-looking orifice otherwise, but it’s not for him, him it can only devour, swallow him up like a gigantic, blind and toothless fish; it stinks, or maybe it’s the stink of his own fear he’s smelling, and it can smell it too, that’s why it’s moist, it’s the slobbering mouth of Leviathan.
Sophia speaks again, blowing a billow of smoke that for a moment swathes her fleshy breasts in a fine mist – what man could possibly resist her? Come on, baby boy, I know you want to, I knew it from the moment I saw you, you might think you’re messed up, that you like guys and stuff, but I know better, I’m gonna drive the sissy right out of you, and you won’t care who fucks your precious Nina anymore, cause you won’t give her a second look, she can go fuck herself for all you care, she and that fuckin’ schoolboy of hers, what, you don’t want me talkin’ dirty, oh really, Nico boy, it helps, a man should curse all the time, any real man does, so fuck this boy, fuck him like I know you want to, close your eyes and I’ll let you fuck me in the ass, whad’you say, it’s smooth and tight and it’ll make you come and wanna fuck it again.
She lets the dressing gown drop and, grabbing his shoulders, kisses him sloppily on the mouth and then wrestles him onto the creaky bed.
And she is right, the mantra of fucks resonates inside his hand like a melody, do-re-mi-fuck, she plays him like a fakir’s recorder and the snake inside the basket wriggles and rises. Hatred and Fear – the victim and the hangman – beget Erection. Let her do me first, he thinks, and then she’ll agree to anything, women are like that, she’ll agree to go screw sweet little Yannis and in ten years tops he’ll be dead. He responds against his nature to the caresses, he presses onto her and kisses her back, hard tireless kisses like those that only exist in the world of pornography, an intercourse of the tongues. It’s nice that she’s so aggressive, tearing at his clothes, that she doesn’t mind his saying, Fuck me, over and over again, because that’s exactly how he always used to dream about it, another man riding him, heavy on his chest and cock like a cloudy sky, a rock, it doesn’t matter if it’s a woman, life is too short and beggars can’t be choosers, maybe he will learn, because by God he’s so ignorant, so pathetic, he hasn’t lived at all, look at him, he’s wrestling with this Freudian nightmare, trying to block out the faces of his mother and father but allowing the bodies, their bodies mean nothing to him, a person is a face, and thinking about those shiny wet buttocks in his old room, the tiny waist and the broad shoulders and the rippling abdomen and the calves muscular from biking, he feels his cock throb, once, twice, Oh don’t come yet, think about something awful, about death, I’m dying, I’m dying, I’m dying.
But the mind is strong; stronger even with eyes closed and reality lost in heavy breathing. Suddenly Sophia’s breath sounds like a death rattle, throaty and warm, and he realizes she’s buried her head in his crotch, sucking and biting his balls; in a second she’ll be licking the transparent prostate fluid that shines invitingly on his swollen glans, and from then on it’s a done deal, he’ll come in her mouth just like the last time, forced, unprotected, giving and receiving death.
He can’t do this to her; despite her wild state, he knows the passionate smooches on his scrotum are a form of kindness, she’s a sweet thing and life has been fucking her since she was a baby, she doesn’t have to be fucked by death too. So, shaking and trying to restrain the unstoppable explosion – she might lick the sperm off of the sheets, to show how much she means to please him, how normal he is – he crawls on his back to the opposite side of the bed like a gigantic bug turned upside-down, fighting the naked female beast with flailing hands and feet, an anorgasmic father-plagued cockroach, hello Gregor Samsa.
But it’s not Sophia who screams as if there were indeed a cockroach on the bed; it’s him, the coward.
Get off of me! Get OFF of me!
Night has fallen and Zappeion Park has lost its daylight innocence. Now a different kind of innocence moves among the black trees, breathing in and out like they, looking for that ever-present and yet elusive means of sustenance that is love.
This being an Underworld, they are all young; they’re boys: curious, fearless and adventurous, daring the police to catch them red-handed and red-faced at what is merely their natural source of pleasure (struggling to break free as every innate need that is inhumanly suppressed will do), indifferent to the ostracism most bad boys suffer.
There’s lots of smoking going on; nicotine isn’t the Antichrist yet, and also these bitter-tasting fireflies are the only way to fight the darkness without exposing oneself to that merciless world of the adjacent streetlamps and the carefree passers-by (enjoying their schadenfreude while it lasts, before the sweet young girl they married turns into a harpy, before the knight in shining armour withdraws to TV-watching and to the scratchy wasteland of his balls). They’re not ashamed, these shadows, and even if they are, their shame is conscious, to spice the excitement with guilt and pleasing terror.
For they are revolutionaries, although they do not know this – most of them feel wretched in the loneliness of their empty, one-room homes, exiled to a narrowness of space and feeling; they deplore their co-workers’ knowing looks, they curse that bitch Biology; some of them, the saddest of these shadows, are in a hurry, thinking about excuses they’ll have to make to their incarcerated wives, the horror of a child smothering with kisses the lips that will be sullied behind these bushes. And yet all the same they’re brave, they are the breath that’s building up; when their era will be sugared and romanticized for the benefit of coffee-table books and gay chatrooms and they’ll be recognized as pioneers of a cult, it will be sadly too late: they will be sour or bitter or dust. But that will never diminish the importance of their forgotten nightly prowls.
There’s a silent sense of community in this open-air Sexland – a closeness, almost, in which every face is familiar and respected as belonging to either a steady population or to a crowd of drifters. Here goes the stuffy gentleman, wearing a dark suit and tie, and perhaps a hat; he’s sixty but still lives with his ancient mother, and he’s for this so used to being coddled that he shall never kneel on the ground to suck another man’s cock, neither will he take his own out; he’s too afraid of getting dirt or plant sap or spunk on his fine clothes, washed with such care by dear old mama; so he’ll avoid the thorny shrubs and the only interaction he’ll allow himself is going to be a handjob, hurriedly administered and without looking at the soldier’s or sailor’s boyish face (the men of his own age he will shun – they consider each other pathetic). Over there, a couple of young men sit on a bench, browsing tonight’s menu and laughing their heads off; in thitry years these two would be called ‘crazies ’ (the predicative in the feminine), but these days people still are apt to use a Turkish-deriving pejorative such as ‘poustariá ’; these are the ones society considers literally sick – they have been offered or forcibly undergone therapy, and in some extreme cases they have had an electrode inserted in their anus and been shown a sequence of male and female nudes, in the hope that, as was the case with Pavolv’s dogs, they will at some point become physically repelled by the very thought of a cock; well, the treatment doesn’t seem to have been of help to these two misguided souls, who must hide their pain very well (because they giggle non-stop); or maybe something else has been awakened in their hearts by all the hatred, because, despite the easiness implied by their clothing and their effeminate voices and titters, they are the more frugal ones, able to leave the park in the same manner of all-excluding solitude and togetherness. Last but not least, there goes the river of strangers, the constantly renewed faces and those more persistently sought after because of their virility and stamina; they’re gay for pay naturally, which adds an S&M aura to their other charms: they are young lovers of women, rough and tough and taciturn, but they’re also helpless as whores – if the other party demands that they come then they must, no matter how strained their cock feels. Curiously, in the poorer neighbourhoods and suburbs most of these boys come from, to be paid good money for a blowjob is viewed with indulgence if not approval; it’s a small victory against the system, plus these old queers sometimes take them home to spectacular villas and apartments where they’re free to roam and ‘borrow’ stuff; see that boy over there, the skinny one with the curly hair? He has a girlfriend who knows all about his source of income and is nonetheless thrilled whenever he takes her for a ride on his ill-gotten Vespa; she calls his Záppeion patrons ‘gramps’, a coolness almost postmodern.
But tonight a stranger walks among these people, bearing in his eyes and heart a darkness greater than the one surrounding him – a big black angry lust. This man’s walking the park is a transformation, a butterfly’s cocoon bursting from the wild beating of wild wings that –
(Oh God, enough is enough. The man has shed all pretentions in order to come here; why be pretentiously metaphoric about it?)
Nicos roves the park, craving for a fuck.
It came to him after he’d painfully resisted coming in Sophia’s mouth and after he had paid her the usual fee of tenderness, asking if she could please go to her room so that he might get a decent night’s sleep.
Of course there was no question of sleeping without ejaculating first – virginity has helped retain a teenage masturbatory reflex, that is to say, he cannot ever sleep unless he’s come into his palm or underwear or onto his sheets and bare thighs; it’s a matter of pleasure as well as deliverance from the nagging of his brain.
So this time too he lay on his back and closed his eyes and got down to business; but suddenly he was awakened by the screaming of the tyrant. I won’t go to sleep, not this time! You better have something better to propose, or else! I’ll drive myself mad, Nico, I swear I will! Just watch me! And with an audible pop his ears began to ring. He jumped out of bed and paced the room, his erection pointing like a thick compass needle to the self-evident.
He had to have sex, if just for once in his life; he couldn’t die fuckless. He had to find a man, and quick.
His intentions were pure but the motive screwed-up. As he marched towards the end of Athinàs Street, he kept seeing the scene of Nina’s ultimate betrayal. He hadn’t had the heart to go back after she’d rejected the ring and the proposal, and he knew she wouldn’t care if she never saw him again. By this time, her beloved Yannis would already be bombarding the rusty cot with his thrusts – in and out, in and out, tearing with needless force his mother’s hymen. He felt his presence as he stopped on the Hermoù T-junction: a huge black phantom, a python rising among the Anafiótika hovels, a dragon nested beneath the Acropolis. Go away, the creature said, Don’t come any closer, you wouldn’t dare to set foot again in my heterosexual kingdom.
And he was right – Nicos wouldn’t, not ever. Nina belonged to Yannis now, she might pretend tomorrow that everything was back to normal, that they were two good friends and nothing more, and say she was sorry about last night but it didn’t occur to them to drop a line at the reception of the Grand Bretagne, or even if they had and he had never read it they wouldn’t have gone to the movies as they’ll claim, they would’ve been fucking and fucking, endlessly, all night long.
But Nicos had made up his mind; they would pay for their insolence, he’d make them pay as children do their parents, by hurting himself and others to get back at them, to draw them violently out of their safeness. If he couldn’t destroy Yannis by splitting them up or by passing the lethal virus on to him, then he would simply kill a man selected at random. So they were determined to create him all over again, the pitiable thing he has been all his life? Oh, no. He’d do them one better – he’d make this unmade Nicos into a monster; a murderer.
Here we are, then. The park. The fragrant chilly October night. The men.
He’s never done this before, and he’s enjoying the panic so much he could scream. Why hadn’t he tried it, the first time would have sufficed, if he had known that the heart can beat with such orgasmic fear he’d never have gone to that whore, he’d have become one with the gay movement, protecting himself from the disease and the boredom, smelling the aphrodisiac sweat on the bodies of others and not just the acrid stink of his sperm coagulating on lonesome boxer shorts.
He’d initially considered going to a porn cinema, but he didn’t know where those might be and he prefers the fresh air, the mild cold is invigorating and the rustle of the bushes delicious. I can’t believe it! he thinks, over and over. There’s half-naked guys going at it a few metres away, behind this tree, over there by the park bench, was that a moaning, oh my God it was, someone’s climaxing right here, in the open! It’s incredible! Oh God, please, can someone make me moan like this tonight?
And the most amazing thing is that there appears to be a lot of someones eyeing him hungrily. He who never thought of himself as a sexual entity, who even fancied himself ugly to the point of repulsive when at twenty-five no man had ever made a pass at him, now walks with confidence, excitement and pride. He’s beautiful after all, he is desirable! Of course Nicos doesn’t know this is a question of his air and clothing and posture too; he’s the child of a more enlightened age, a man who had the chance to realize that wanting to fuck men doesn’t necessarily mean you’re a woman and who thus never had to adopt the affectations that so many gay men did in the Seventies Greece, if only to stand out and attract the desperately needed attention, the caress, the vulgar blowjob, the acceptance of comic relief. It doesn’t matter though, why they seem to desire him – the important thing is that they do, four different guys have already asked him for a light, and although the first three were much too old and their hands shook as they lit up (he thinks they must be the buyers in the trade), the fourth was a gorgeous young boy almost certainly underage, with thick black hair, lips wet and luscious and just a hint of fluffy dark mustache: a Pasolini angel.
He’s forgotten all about diseases and revenge, this hide-and-seek has erased any memory of Nina or Yannis; gone are the insecurity and the self-pity. It’s time for a little catch me if you can, he’s such a tease, such a slut, a whore really, strutting about in his tight sweat suit, oh he’s gonna sweat alright, just let him find the perfect guy, shit, that juicy young thing just went behind the hedge with grampa, never mind though, because this is a chase, a hunting ground, he could be hunted down and raped by any of these men, fucked senseless like the filth he is oh God yes do it, turn me into filth.
But the Lord has other plans. Suddenly, a siren blasts and a strong light cuts into the bushfire of intercourse, coming from Queen Olga Avenue. There’s more rustling and some whispered curses as men come running out of the thickets and from behind trees, buttoning shirts and pulling up zippers and checking for accidental smears and stains. For Nicos it’s like seeing people reacting to an earthquake he hasn’t felt – he freezes, watching them as they stumble past him. Only one kind soul hisses at him, Get outta here, man! and then he understands what terrible fate awaits him. It’s the police, cruisers to arrest the cruisers. They’ll be taking him to the station for a deposition, a junta-enacted humiliation. And then they’ll demand his ID card and he won’t have one, but wait, oh God this is worse, fuck, he has by mistake his old ID on him, issued in 1988, and he can only guess at the horrors inflicted for such monstrous forgery.
He turns to run and someone bellows, Stay where you are, faggots! but it’s as if he’s tempted Divinity, who outbellows him with a deafening thunderclap and it’s enough to distract anyone, such unearthly noise, and then at once it starts to pour.
Nicos is drenched in a second and the park becomes a sea, he runs and slips on the mud and falls and lands on his coccyx and the pain is like an electrocution, it paralyzes him, he groans and tries to get up but can only crawl, run on all fours like an animal and hide behind a firethorn bush which so help him God is thick enough so they won’t find him; he hugs his kness and tries to stop his teeth from chattering, the rain is freezing. Why me? he cries with silent sobs, Why me? How is it possible, so much hatred directed at this poorest of beasts, was it so terrible to ask for a moment’s bliss, some shred of happiness, a kiss and a hand and a little pain?
He keeps his eyes closed, telling himself that it won’t happen, it’s ridiculous that he should be the only one arrested, he didn’t do anything; it’s crazy, hunting people during a freak storm like this, flashes erupting every other moment, they’re putting themselves in danger, they might get struck by lightning, he might get struck, oh please, let it strike! Suddenly a hand touches his shoulder, he’s been caught, killed by lightning after all, this is what people do to each other in real life, the torturers torture the innocent and yet he never even thought of being left-wing. But when he opens his eyes it’s not the face of a monster he’s looking at. It’s a policeman, his uniform soaked and black, and there’s something unexpected in the face half-hidden by the darkness and the cap. He kneels next to him (why is he kneeling?), gestures him to hush (why isn’t he arresting me?) and then he leans closer and kisses him.
He’ll be dead within an hour, thinks Nicos. He knows his father is a man condemned, he’s as certain of the fact as a Texan executioner – although it will be harder than having to press a button or pull a lever or push the piston of a syringe. It will be hard but it has to be done, and it has to be done now.
He knew this the moment he reached the top of the stairs at seven in the morning, as soon as he stood outside Nina’s house and looked at the closed red shutters and heard her soft angelic voice singing a love song to herself. Nicos hadn’t been prepared for the coroner’s scalpel the sound of this song would thrust into his body, emptying him, voiding his courage and invigoration, the fullness he thought his heart finally possessed. It was never full and it never would be – this song was the proof. This was what people meant when they talked about love: living in the dark until it comes like a thief in the night, asphyxiates you for hours on end, pressing with pressure only the fish of the abyss can ever know, airless and glowing from an inner light, from a phosphorescent place inside the skull where the brain, creator and receiver of the precious feeling lies; and then, when love goes away, you rise beating your arms and legs like crazy to the surface, and you gasp, and when there’s air enough inside you, you have to let it out and it becomes song.
Nicos had come here to defy this godliness, but he had come too late; Yannis had already been there and left, leaving behind the godly seed, and now Nina was singing to her happiness, she sang becuase there was no other way to tell the world of her new stature – a goddess. And her son couldn’t bear to listen to that voice anymore, he had to run and hide before she opened the door and came out prancing like some stupid musical heroine, one of those he always said he loathed but secretly adored.
The important thing her singing told him was that she was alone; and he would make sure that she would remain alone forever.
Old men don’t sleep much; their body denies them the luxury because death is too much at hand and there’s no longer any hope in the subconscious bathing in its fantasies – why dream of sex or bliss when there’s so little time to actually live them?
Grandpa wasn’t an exception. He was up by eight-thirty, when Nicos, recalling to his own astonishment the six-digit phone number of his childhood, called to say that they could meet at Zonar’s for coffee if he didn’t mind making the trip downtown; he wanted to show him those space telescope photos he’d expressed such a strong wish to see. He’d made copies, he said, fighting to keep a level voice despite the stab of treachery. It wasn’t so much the bereavement the loss of his only son would cause him that he regretted; he felt guiltier over this lie, the photos he didn’t and wouldn’t have to give. Of course poor old grandpa would most likely forget all about them, what good would they possible be when he’d have lost the light of his life? Still, Nicos wasn’t taking any chances: the moment he hung up he hailed a cab and told the driver to step on it. By the time he’d be arriving at the Kifissià house, old Nicos wouldn’t have reached the outskirts of Maroussi – his grandfather was a committed urban hiker, and if it could be helped he went everywhere on foot. Nicos would be back for the rendezvous with time to spare, and he could use this time to fabricate another lie, better than the one about some hoodlum snatching his briefcase on the street.
The last thing he added, tremulously, was a devious comment on telephoning etiquette. And I’m sorry I called so early, he said. I hope I didn’t wake you guys up.
Pff, you’re kiddin’ me, boy? grandpa replied. I have to get up and pee like two hundred times before the fuckin sun rises, and you couldn’t wake that lil’ bastard of mine if you set his balls on fire.
Oh grampa, thought Nicos. What an awful thing to say.
In the cab he tried to still the mad beating of his heart by reasoning. It was justifiable, killing his father – he wasn’t even his father, he should stop thinking of him like that, he was a young obnoxious stranger who might or might not become his father. But even if he did, if he was meant to, it didn’t mean that stopping him by killing him was evil. Nothing was evil. If the Scope was so infinite that even an impossibility like his parents meeting again wasn’t impossible after all, it would be absurd to believe in the existence of a superior Benevolence in such random chaos, one that should punish his soul for murdering one among million different versions of dad. And even if there were – say that the vengeful bearded old guy with the baklava-halo above his head really did exist, a cosmic bully, rubbing his hands in sweet anticipation of the next puny creature he shall deep-fry in Hell. Still, it was retribution, plain and simple; his father was the one who attacked first; it was Yannis who killed him, Yannis, with his androgynous good looks and his hotpants and Mercury sandals, probably carrying some latent gay gene in his DNA with all those stupid artistic tendencies running in the family, who said grandfather wasn’t gay too, he’d lived twenty years of celibacy in a house that should’ve been a catwalk of girlfriends, in the company of a wizened gnome of a cleaning lady and his nudist exhibitionist son, so maybe that’s where his father’s constant horniness came from, not from having been deprived of a mother figure but from having enjoyed sex for God knew how long in the hands of an old satyr, it served them right then that one should die from fire and the other from sorrow, the putrid old monster should know better than to fuck his own kid, making him cling to the first virgin girlfriend he found, to a child-bride that was meant to produce a miserable sexless child. Fuck you, you bastard, nobody pulled me out of the sack, you left me there in pieces, to rot. You were the perfect man, you stole my mother’s love, your hand guided my cock into that festering hole of death. And now for this you will die.
The spare key was where they’d always put it – underneath a flowerpot containing the desiccated corpse of a geranium. It made things easier, such old-time innocence; anyone prowling the leafy roads could’ve opened the unlocked gate, found the key merely by looking around the verandah, entered the house and started a fire. However, Nicos took care that no one saw him enter the garden, and he planned to take a couple of things so that it would look like a burglary gone wrong. As for the fire, in case there were an inquiry, grandpa would have only himself to blame: it was a known fact, a private joke even, that the fuse box, a relic from the Thirties when the house was built and situated in the basement, was a ticking bomb – short-circuiting all the time and giving them constant black-out scares, until it finally had to be replaced by his lightheaded parents in 1983, by which time it had helped start two minor fires which claimed a couple of grandpa’s cartoon scrapbooks.
He went inside and listened; no sound – just the breathing of the old floorboards, the soft rustle of curtains, no movement other than the dust kissed by the Sun and dancing in his light. He went up the stairs, stealthily, with a perverse feeling of naughtiness: Here I am, in my own home, Nicos the killer. But he stood still when he reached the landing, and the amusement was replaced by fear; the monster had taken a glimpse of itself in the mirror. For the door standing ajar a few steps away was the door to his room, and from inside came the regular snore of his father. This, he thought, is the breath of the man who created me. He felt faint; it must be dealt with quickly, otherwise he might lose heart and run. He took the fatal steps, tried not to look but looked: the edge of the bed and a soft white hand lost in sleep, the snoring of a boy content with life. He would put an end to these things, if he moved now there was no turning back. Nicos closed his eyes and then the door and locked it softly, listening and shaking; Yannis’s sleep continued undisturbed; when he awoke to the smell of burning wood and plaster there would be nowhere to go, there weren’t any trees beneath his window, and by the time he’d have realized his helplessness the fire would already be inside, uninvited, and then it would turn him into a black crusty thing. Horrible. Please, God, he said to himself, let him die from smoke inhalation.
Now he stands in the basement, leafing through grandpa’s scrapbooks. It’s such a pity – so many beautiful drawings, all of them condemned. He’d love to take some of the books with him, but they’re huge heavy things, he can’t be seen carrying them, they’re incriminating evidence, and besides what’s the point, what good will they be if he’s dead in a couple of months? But it’s okay, grandpa may find some solace in his art, even though childless and homeless his creative nature may prevail, if he had managed to make those marvellous Balzac caricatures while in prison – yet now there will be nothing to hope for; he will die within days, Nicos is sure of it, he’ll collapse on himself like the white dwarfs he so admires from too much sorrow.
And he hasn’t done anything to harm him, he’s always treated him with unending love, even today he spoke to him tenderly, sweetly; he’s about to destroy a sweet man and his sweet child, because hadn’t dad been an angel too? He drew a picture of Nina and himself sitting on that bench, he’d paid a fortune for poor Hector, he was there when he had his tonsils removed, holding his hand, and at the Sunflower’s opening bash, bringing a bottle of Dom Perignon and hugging him and saying he was so proud of him. Nicos’s face is streaked with tears, he tries to hate but he’s too weak, he can’t even love anymore, all he can do is act irrationally, unthinking. With the rubbing alcohol he got from the kitchen he squirts grandpa’s drawing board, the shelves and the books, the cardboard boxes containing his brushes and colours and solvents, the old frock hanging from a nail on the wall and then the staircase to the hallway, careful so that he won’t slip on the wet wood, squeezing the final drops to make big wet patches on the carpet and the living room curtains.
Then he stuffs the plastic bottle in his coat pocket, takes out a matchbox and tries to light a match. His fingers shake as those of old men with cancer who still want a smoke – this is overkill. You don’t have to do this, you don’t have to do this, your slippery fingers are a sign, you could set yourself on fire by mistake, but it’s cool, it may never spread upstairs, the wallpaper is as far as it’ll go and he’ll have time to get out of bed and jump out the window, a broken leg at worst. And poff, the sulphurous assassin leaps from his hand and falls onto the floor, can’t stop it now, two rivers of fire flow at once and from the basement comes a louder poff, goodbye grandpa’s cartoons, goodbye house that held my life, goodbye dad.
He stifles a rising urge to scream, runs to the door, grabs Yannis’s keys from the spare-change ceramic bowl beside the telephone, goes out and tries to lock the front door. The lock resists him, the wooden edges won’t fit, the house pleads with him, Don’t kill me. But in the end the trap is set. Nobody screams.
Not for the time being, that is. There will be screaming and moaning and tears, but they will be unexpected tears.
Because in her tiny palace of love, Nina still sings – Summertime Love, a highly popular song these days; she doesn’t sing it to herself, though; it is an a cappella performance meant to impress her young lover, to show him what a beautiful thing she is, her splendid breasts and clavicles and cheeks resounding to a splendid voice.
And grandpa, used to the companionship of his dearest son all these years, has been surprised a half-hour earlier to find Yannis’s bed unslept in; this is a first, the girl must mean a lot to him. Suddenly the old man feels a slight constriction of his smiling heart; acute loneliness. He steps into his son’s room, a thing he almost never does, caresses his books and clothes and thinks how he will leave him soon, he must and will leave him and it’s stupid, such early-morning melodrama. He’s just tired, so he lies on his stomach on Yannis’s bed and closes his eyes; there’s lots of time till noon, when he agreed to meet that fascinating young man – would he perhaps come and visit when Yannis had left? Nah, that boy too is so very young. Old Nicos hugs the pillow, presses his face onto the linen; he breathes deeply, to absorb every particle of the adored smell, the present already receding into the past, the love. Yanni, he says.
A slab of cement-coloured sky hangs above the First Cemetery; it’s like a menace, or a rebuke, to anyone who might not comply with the solemnity of the occasion.
Hundreds of people have gathered to mourn the passing of the famous artist, and although he never knew, many among them are left-wing agitators wanted by the police, whose presence there imperils them greatly; but they saw him as one of their own, and having never told him so they’ve come to his funeral, asking for forgiveness with their lowered heads and their shabby black turtlenecks.
Despite his inflammatory pseudonym, Judas receives a full burial service, chanted off-key by an obese priest, one of those who are in cahoots with the junta and probably despised the deceased, but who was nonetheless loath to miss the attention of such an event. A stooped octogenarian painter, who hasn’t been imprisoned simply because he’s seen as belonging to the innocuous undead, mutters, He’s got some nerve, the old goat, if Nicos where alive he’d strike the bastard. But the Greek clergy often behave as cockroaches – they pester you even if you don’t leave food lying around to attract them.
The cartoonist’s son, beautiful in his black suit and tie, stands next to the coffin with death in his eyes. Next to him is a very young girl dressed a bit inappropriately, in jeans and black cardigan, as if she hadn’t a full wardrobe in her possession. The girl cries with loud, shameless sobs, her face is a distorted mass of misery, and though she’s almost certainly the boy’s girlfriend she doesn’t try to hug him, nor does she approach the coffin as much as he; perhaps it’s out of respect, or from fear of collapsing and making a scene; she merely extends a trembling hand every now and then to touch the boy’s unmoving shoulder.
But in the far end of the crowd, unseen by the rest of the mourners, stands a man whose distress is greater still; it’s doubtful if one could even describe him as ‘standing’ at all – he leans against a tree, spread-eagled, his mouth opening and closing as if unable to suck the needed air in, his face like white wax with beads of diseased perspiration. He is a man beyond mourning.
I wanna hug them, he thinks, oh God how much I wanna hug them. But he can’t, he hasn’t the right to even be there. The circle has closed, brutally, because of him, death has bound them together as strongly as love. Now they will never be apart; she entered his life like a comet, heralding this sorrow and thus the ensuing transformation; now they are truly inseparable.
Nicos would love just to be able to squeeze in between them once more, like he didn’t do the last time, when they were lying on the sofa bed watching a DVD; to enter once more the world of the photo he’s brought from the future; he’s carried it with him, to the funeral. Would he dare show it to them? No. He can’t even talk to them, it would be unthinkable, he is a monster. But in the photo he isn’t; just a dark-haired boy of six, sitting between his parents on the living-room couch, the three of them smiling at the blinking eye of the camera. He wants to give it to them but not as a threat, not as an ultimate weapon that says, See, these two they’re you and I’m the child in the middle, and I’m gonna grow up and become unhappy and die at thirty-three. Oh no.
He wants to offer the photo and tell them, See? Happiness lies ahead.
The latest and hottest piece of gossip going around the Saint Savvas Hospital concerns the skinny guy who’s been wasting away for the past three weeks in the terminal ward. He’s registered as Nicos Papadopoulos, but everyone knows this must be a hoax, it’s the commonest name and this guy sure is fishy; Soula, one of the nurses, claims that the head oncologist told her he must be a foreigner, because apart from the obvious state of advanced intestinal cancer, his white-cell count too was totally screwed up, as if from some bug they couldn’t find with any of the regular tests – so it’s probably something he picked up somewhere abroad, the Far East perhaps; maybe it’s contagious, she adds with an air of Hitchcockian expertise, maybe he’s a spy, so we best keep away, girls. But although it’s alluring, this dangerous-oriental-germ theory, the rest of the nurses aren’t buying all of Soula’s story; she’s an incorrigible lazy-ass and she has the hots for the head oncologist; she’d do anything to impress them by having them believe he confides in her.
One thing is sure: the guy is rich and he’s engaged to a prostitute. She comes to visit every day, indifferent to visiting hours, shaking her ass in skintight minis like there’s no tomorrow and making a show of her pearls and of the huge rock the poor ass gave her (which she’s too dumb to know she oughta be wearin’ on her left hand, Alexandra the head nurse adds with venom). No wonder they put him in a single room, the best room in the hospital; it’s practically a suite, they say, angrily, he’s takin’ up so much space while we got kids dyin’ from leukemia every other day, cooped up like chicks in a pen, the poor things. In truth, there’s no such problem, but they have to take it out on him, their indignation; that hooker of his must be milkin’ him big time, who knows how much she spends on those slutty outfits she parades herself in, I heard she sleeps with the whole board of trustees so that her old man may keep his big room, You know how she always closes the door, I think she gives him blowjobs so he’ll kick the bucket sooner, Oh, come on, Ritsa, that’s disgusting, you’re just jealous, She’s a tramp I’m telling you.
Nicos is grateful; at times he’s almost happy. Sophia has been a blessing, he would have died on the street like a homeless person if it weren’t for her; for he was homeless, all the things defining home he destroyed single-handedly. But he doesn’t think about sad things anymore, he only thinks happy thoughts.
He spends hours looking at the drawing of Nina and himself sitting on a bench. It would be better if it showed Yannis instead, but it’s okay; he can close his eyes and picture the young artists hand-in-hand, they’re alive and well and in love and that’s all that matters. They will live happily ever after, he’s sure they will, sometimes he takes one look at the drawing and he can imagine their future, glorious, filled with passion and fame and private bliss. He’s certain Nina has conceived by now, her body has decided to make a gift to her lover, something to help him forget his sadness. Luckily, the house wasn’t destroyed by the fire – only the staircase would have to be replaced and, also, there was quite a lot of money in the inheritance. Sophia found out about all this, he’d asked her to. Of course it has occurred to him that she might be lying just to keep him calm and happy, but even if she is he doesn’t worry: they’ll be sharing the wealth of their love and that’s enough. And they will have a baby, and perhaps that baby will be he; it’s allowed by the Scope, he will be dead by then and able to appear once more, two years earlier than the last time. It’s not reincarnation he hopes for – he knows his soul will be once more a blank, upon which he’s going to draw unknowingly a life of either happiness or sorrow. It doesn’t matter though, it’ll be wonderful to return, he’s grateful the universe permitted his parents still ending up together despite all his scheming and his blunders. He just hopes that if they ever buy their son a dog, he’ll know better than to call it Hector, a man famous for the ignominy that he suffered as a corpse. He thinks a lot about his dog, the silliness of a Paradise where they could meet; but he thinks even more about Hector’s toy.
Because it’s with him, the little sheep, he holds it when he sleeps. Maybe today, maybe tomorrow, he will lose his soul; he will become an inanimate object. But the thought no longer scares him. He just holds the little sheep tightly to his chest, his face, he kisses and caresses and squeezes it and it replies with its inanimate bleating. Maybe today, maybe tomorrow, they will be the same. And he will not be alone.
© Auguste Corteau & Kastaniotis Publications (www.kastaniotis.com)