Rancho Fierno, CA
“Mama, tell me the story again. Please, Mama.”
“Okay. . . ” she says while taking my hand in hers, rubbing my palm lightly with her fingertips, hoping to lull me to sleep. “So, once upon a time, in Ancient Greece, at the top of Mount Olympus, all the gods would meet. Zeus would sit on his throne, with Hera beside him, and make decisions about the Greek people.”
“Mama, was Yiayia alive during that time?”
“No, sweetie, that was a very long time ago, even before your grandmother was born.”
“Mama, tell me again about Zeus and the ball people.”
“Well, people back then were round, kind of like big soccer balls. They had four arms, four legs, and one head with two faces. Each face had two eyes, a nose and mouth.”
“They couldn’t see each other, right, Mama?”
“No, but one always knew that the other was close. One was stuck right behind the other. They shared one mind, one heart, and were eternally joined.”
“And, Mama, they would roll around the earth, right?”
“Yes, Thair. They would roll around the earth, moving quickly, powerfully, as they used their arms and legs to travel at great speeds. They were strong. And they were happy, really happy, because their other half was always right there, connected to them.”
As she speaks, Mama notices that I am no longer smiling.
“What’s wrong, agape mou?” she says as she takes a strand of my dark hair and moves it off my cheek.
“I guess . . . well . . . I was just thinking that it would be nice if people were still like that.”
“Really? You don’t think it would be uncomfortable to roll around instead of having two separate legs and two separate arms?”
“I was just thinking, if your other half was always stuck to you, then Daddy wouldn’t be at work so much.”
My mother lowers her eyes and in a quiet voice continues: “So do you want to hear the rest of the story or shall we save it for tomorrow?”
“Okay, Mama, we can save it. I already know that mean Zeus will take out his magic sword and slice all the ball people in half.”
“Thair, the way you say that makes it seem like such a sad story.”
“It is a sad story! I wish people had their best friends stuck to them from the beginning, and you didn’t have to look for them.”
Mama pats me on the head, “You know, sweetheart, you’re right. Zeus was a mean fellow. It would be easier if we didn’t have to look for our other half, and we were born with that special person stuck to us right away. But let’s remember the great part of the story: that our other half does exist and one day, baby, when you grow up and are a young lady, you will meet a nice boy that will make you so happy, and all your worries will be over.”
James and I are both lying on the couch, our heads at opposite sides on the arm rests, legs and feet intertwined. He is studying a book of Henry Fuseli’s paintings, and I am growing frustrated with Jane even though I have read and taught this novel more than ten times. After a few minutes, I can feel James’ eyes bore into my book. I lower Miss Eyre and hesitantly smile: “What’s up?”
“Are you familiar with the Scylla and Charybdis myth?”
“Yeah, they’re the female monsters who drowned and devoured sailors—but Odysseus got away,” I reply.
“Yes, exactly. Look at this painting,” he says while passing me an art book.
It’s an ominous painting. I can see James is waiting for me to react, so I proceed, “Odysseus’ stance is powerful, the monsters look devil-like. The rough waters feel like turmoil, the colors like hell at night. But . . . to be honest, it’s just too dark for my taste.”
James stares at me through his dark-rimmed glasses. His intense features, velvet-black hair and aqua eyes had initially attracted me, but now his eyes, almost translucent, seem too distant. James is a few inches taller than me, standing 5’10”, but we both look longer with short torsos and giraffe legs. We share similar features: light eyes, sharp jaws, petite noses, wide smiles—except for our skin; his is so white, and mine, honey tan, with a glow year-round. So similar, yet so different.
He’s still staring at me while I hold the heavy book, and not knowing what else he wants me to say, I set it down on the carpet since his arms are crossed.
James speaks slowly. “There’s an expression ‘between Scylla and Charybdis’ meaning ‘between a rock and a hard place.’ ”
“Interesting, I’ve never heard it.” I try to remain calm, but the tumultuous scene in the painting is slowly rising up off the page and working its way into our living room.
“I want to ask you something.”
“Do you ever feel like we are stuck?”
“What do you mean stuck?” I ask.
“Thair, apart from books and art, what do we really have in common?”
I’m unsettled. I sit up straighter, “James, don’t they say opposites attract?”
“Come on, Thair, you love to walk, talk, hike, bike, go out for a cocktail, a sumptuous dinner—”
“And you like dark spaces, to come out at night, and restaurants are considered a waste of money,” I continue, finishing his sentence. What I don’t say out loud is and when you have a showing, you hide in our extra bedroom, your pseudo-studio; you’re absorbed, distant, unreachable. Nothing except your paintings matter.
“I feel our life together is stagnant,” he says while looking down at the swirling waters around Odysseus.
“James, neither of us wants children. We both agree that we don’t need marriage to feel committed, so I’m confused. Where’s this coming from?”
“Are you . . . are you in love with me?”
I kick his foot with mine. “Of course I love you.”
“That’s not what I am asking. Are you in love with me?”
My body quivers. Trying to sound optimistic, I continue: “James, after almost five years, who is really in love? We love each other very much.”
When we met at the gallery for his debut showing, more than six years before, his passion for his work captured one part of me, and I was smitten. James’ gentle soul, kind arms, and smart words forced me to silence my inquietude, to continue to try to be open, but I knew my heart and mind didn’t agree.
“Thair,” he repeated, “Do you see me as your other half? The one who was created just for you?”
James doesn’t believe in fairy tales; since our conversations are usually objective and analytical, rarely emotional—unless we are discussing his artwork—I’m taken aback, uprooted, even a bit angry.
“Thair, please . . . are you in love with me?” he repeats weakly.
I finally answer, “First, Aristophanes got it wrong in Plato’s Symposium. There is no such thing as ‘the other half.’ I should have never told you about my mom’s bedtime story.
Obviously this myth has persuaded you, too. This idea of being ‘in’ this thing that neither you nor I can define is stupid. We are happy. I love you. You love me. At least I think you do. Finish. End of story.”
As I speak the words, inside I’m thinking, I’m a part-time professor, living a part-time life. I don’t want to marry James and I don’t want babies. My life is a merry-go-round. Every day looks like the other. I am pretending. Pretending to be happy. Just like most people I know. Core happiness is an illusion. I want to scream: Fucking deal with it, James!
He looks straight into me, a rueful expression on his face. His eyes drop and an inaudible whisper escapes his lips, “I think . . . it’s time . . . for me to move out.”
I don’t fight. I don’t beg. I simply accept. But beyond my control, tears explode from my eyes, stream down my face, and I cry for five hours. Our feet are still interlaced. We never get up off the couch. He just closes his eyes and listens to me whimper. Words are inadequate. Finally at midnight, I get up, dazed and disoriented. I have to give a final exam the following morning at 8 a.m. and can barely open my puffy eyes. I shower and come back; he hasn’t moved.
“When do you want to leave?” It’s my place after all, only one name on the deed. “You know you can stay as long as you like.”
“Yes, I know, and thank you,” he replies solemnly.
Five weeks later, five suitcases and a pile of paintings sit by the door. I look at them and feel vacant.
Island of Kythnos, Greece
Late May, 2000
I get up from the table, pour myself a glass of water, and look out the window. I can’t shake James from my mind. As I relive the day we separated, I can hear James’ voice, see his tired eyes. My mind still misses him, the intellectual conversations, hours of talking about art and literature, but my heart always knew something was missing. Aristotle once said the mind and heart are one. I do not feel that way—mine never agree. I know logically, viscerally, I should have beensatisfied, but my heart demands more. I couldn’t tell James I was in love with him because I wasn’t. He was my best friend, my companion; his good looks should have made me want to tear his clothes off, but sex was prosaic.
This past year, instead of feeling grateful for what I do have—health, home, a job—I’ve felt lost. I remember a Greek friend telling me when I was younger: “You Americans all say you are lost! Go look in a mirror. There you are!” I laugh remembering this while looking at the calm blue water below, but I also know the emptiness inside is real.
When I told my mother I had decided to spend my entire summer on Kythnos, the island of my grandmother, she was concerned. Thair, women don’t travel alone for such an extended amount of time. It’s just not normal.
I had listened quietly, not wanting to argue with her because, ironically, this trip was the sanest option at a time when my life felt like it was unraveling. Ever since my grandmother had died ten years before, I had dreamed of returning to the island of my childhood, and since there was no one to hold me back, I knew it was time.
I rented a traditional, white-washed house, a pretty little place perched high on a cliff; not too big, two bedrooms, one bathroom with a stand-up shower, and a breakfast nook with a stunning view of a cove below. The owner cleaned up the place for me, cleared away the cobwebs that grow over the nine months when these houses go to sleep.
Leaning against the sink, sipping my water, peering around the kitchen at the turquoise paintings, the blue cups and white plates, I am reminded of Yiayia’s home, yet this enchanted place is so much cleaner, better-kept. Every detail chosen by the owner captures the Greek isle’s magic and makes me even more nostalgic.
From fifteen years old till twenty-one, there was no place I would have rather spent my summers than on the island of Kythnos with my grandmother. And, now, after ten long years, I have finally made it back—a single, thirty-one-year-old woman with no children. I wonder what Yiayia would say if she could see me today? I’ve been thinking a lot about my yiayia, about our summers together, about my mother, divorced now for more than a decade, about her decisions, her choices. She had escaped from Greece, yet this country had been my escape during my youth. Once more, just as I had felt during my teenage years, I hoped clarity would come if I returned to Greece. So the last day of final exams, I graded my students’ essays, submitted all the necessary paperwork, bought myself a brand new laptop, had a drink with Rick and Frank to toast my birthday and show off my new cutting-edge purchase.
Rick’s words ring in my ears: “I hope you’re not taking that thing,” he had said while playing with my computer, “to have it sit on a table.”
No, Rick, I plan on writing. Really. I remember sitting with the lovebirds that night in a dive bar in Hillcrest and Frank telling his partner to “give Thair a break. It’s been a tough year. Not everyone is as lucky as we are.”
“It wasn’t luck, Frank. You and I were actively going out and looking,” Rick had responded. Then Rick had told me: “You need to go out, darling. You need to meet people,” and then he enthusiastically added, “I’m so glad you’re finally doing something, going to Greece for the summer!”
Rick and Frank make a striking pair and are the most loving couple I have ever met. No two people love and respect each other more; they are my role models for a perfect union, and not just because they are in love and have been faithful to each other for more than nine years, but when they are together, there’s this wonderful harmony present. They clearly complete each other. They want to get married, but our country, sadly, is not there yet. When I see them, there is no doubt in my mind that they were together before Zeus had his way with them. They were the lucky ones, the ones who found their other half.
“So, Thair, will you write a novel or stories, a memoir? What’s your plan? I want you to write a big, fat, juicy bestseller. With lots of sex!” Rick had said. I chuckled and told him I just want to write something.
So for three months of pure isolation on the sleepy island of Kythnos, I have decided I will write stories, stories about my grandmother’s life, about my mother’s, and about my own. I’m hoping that writing about the past will help me make sense of my future, and maybe retracing my roots will help me find that thing I am searching for.
As I sit here in this blue and white kitchen, images of my youth are overpowering. Yiayia in her regular spot, I’m across from her, asking her question after question. During those long summers, as a young girl obsessed with falling (and staying) in love, I repeatedly asked my yiayia about my grandfather and if she loved him. She just laughed: “Ti nomizis?” What did I think? I had no idea. It didn’t seem like it. She never talked about him, never seemed to be sad that he was dead. My theory was she did not love him. If Yiayia didn’t love Papou (the handsome man from a bedside picture), and my mother had admitted to me, just years earlier, that she had never fully loved my father, did I ever have a chance of loving a man? That is, loving a man completely? Mind, body, and heart.
Even though I woke heavy, somber thoughts plundering my mind, it’s another beautiful day. The morning sun penetrates through the shutters and beats down on my body. I stretch my arms out and take a deep breath as the salty air tickles my nose; sliding my legs off the side of the bed, waking slowly, I saunter into the kitchen. I get the Loumides and a coffee cup from the cupboard and fill the briki with water. Struggling to light the stove with the flint, I finally get it lit and place the single-serving pot on the fire and watch the water boil.
I picture my plump, pint-sized grandmother sitting at the table, mechanically cleaning green beans. Whenever she saw me making my morning coffee, Yiayia always grumbled. She complained about her tired hands and sore feet, complained that she did all the work around the house, but when I asked her what she wanted me to do, Yiayia’s response was always the same: “Nothing.” She loved to whine. She whined all the time, but I knew that her routine complaining was just so that I would never forget to appreciate her. Yiayia complained incessantly that her daughter had forsaken her motherland for the land of air-conditioning, but at least, she would say, “You I have,” and when I would turn around, I always saw her naughty smirk. “Tell Yiayia,” she would say, “Where you go last night?”
All alone in my rented kitchen, I remember how our morning visits were the times when I felt closest to her. On the straw-thatched chair, I sat, telling her all my stories, how every night of the week, I found my friends on the main street in town where people—young and old—gathered. I told her how I had spent the evenings talking to boys and dancing. She would sit, cut, nod, and I would continue.
I told her who was dating, who was kissing, who was disappearing during the night, and Yiayia pretended she didn’t want to hear anymore, “No more, Thair!” But every morning while she prepared the day’s lunch, she always asked me about my night out. I was only a teenager, but life was so different in Greece, so much freer than the U.S. with its many laws and regulations.
Our morning ritual consisted of me drinking Greek coffee and telling her all the local gossip. “I met a nice boy, Yiayia, at Aleko’s bar.”
“Who is his papou? What name he has?” She always asked me whose grandson he was; as if a last name would explain the boy’s complete family genealogy—it almost did, on this island of only 1,500 residents.
“He’s not local, Yiayia.” Her eyes always flickered when I said I spent the night flirting with a foreigner, a xeno.
“He a German? Italian? A South African?” she asked, then added: “A good British boy?”
Her face turned downwards, “Why not English? You never like English?”
“Yiayia, I think I really like this one. His name is Sandro.” She got up and walked out of the kitchen, onto the balcony, with her bowl of beans. The conversation was over.
So many memories, so long ago, and yet her raspy voice still penetrates the air.
As I take my coffee outside onto the balcony, I picture Sandro, my final summer love. His family had rented a villa on the island for a few months. Sandro was tall with dark eyes and olive skin. Very, very handsome, but sex was beige ceilings—melying there, staring up, waiting for him to finish. He was memorable with his gallant manner and sexy accent, but it was simply young love.
When I would tell Yiayia my stories, she never asked if I cared for these boys. I think they were just characters to her, but one day plans about my life with Sandro spilled from my young mouth, and, for the first time, her body twitched and her face contorted in a way I had never seen before. I had kept talking, explaining how Sandro said that he wanted to marry me; that I was a mature woman, he a man who knew what he wanted. But what did we know? I was only twenty-one and he, just a twenty-four-year-old boy. Sandro wanted me to come back after I graduated from college, live with my yiayia for a while; he would open a café on the island, I could teach English, and we could be together forever. Finally, I could not ignore the look in her eyes. It’s still with me today, peering deep into mine, so deep, I felt her dive and drown in them, then resurface as she said slowly: “Thair, you no marry. You no love this Sandro. And you so young. You not know what love is.”
As I sit here now, I feel as frustrated as I did back then.
I had pleaded with her, “What is agape then, Yiayia? Tell me!” If my grandmother, Aphrodite, named after the goddess of love, didn’t have the answers, then who did? “What is love, Yiayia?” I begged her to tell me about my grandfather. Was the love she shared with Papou real love? Instead she took my hand, leading me to the bedroom. She opened a drawer, handed me a small velvet box, and gave me a simple gold band that was inscribed with a man’s name. Henry Archibald Hadley. And then she began—finally—to tell me her story.
Aphrodite, or Dita as she was called, looked at her parents directly in their eyes and with a vehement “Oxi!” said, no! She would not marry the young Greek fisherman. She was seventeen, having the time of her life and would not spoil it with marriage. Dita said this as she slammed the door of the thin, two-floor building that was her home. She walked a few blocks, her body still shaking, knowing the wrath of her own voice would be paralleled by her mother’s once she returned home. Unlike most seventeen-year-old girls, she was not afraid of her father. She worried about her mother, the towering woman whom she adored, but also feared.
Walking down the dusty street, she made her way to the military base. It wasn’t Saturday, but she would see if they had any work for her. She loved her weekend volunteer work. The Allies had several bases in Egypt and since she couldn’t enlist (what she would have preferred doing) she would wear her old overalls, a tight red blouse, a pretty checkered scarf, and every Saturday show up to change the oil of the Jeeps at the base. It was a novelty for the young men to see this buxom Greek broad offer her “services.” The first day she showed up, Dita said she was handy with a wrench, could do almost anything on a car, could also change electrical outlets, knew how to build a wall—and how to tear it down. Dita’s mom had a less than subtle way of introducing her daughter to activities that were anything but feminine. “Show her how to be useful!” she would bellow to her meek husband, who dragged himself off the couch, to show Dita the difference between a starter and a generator. And Dita loved learning those things. She loved pretty dresses, but loved getting dirty more.
When Dita went to the base for the first time, the officer directed her towards the Red Crescent office. She responded that she couldn’t stand the sight of blood, but give her an oil pan: she would show them what she could do. So that’s how she came to be the local oil-changer. She loved sliding under a Jeep, feeling the oil drip on her face, the grease under her fingernails. Of course, she also loved the attention. Men would come to see the young girl in overalls who was working under their vehicles, and without trying too hard, she got dates; lots of dates with Americans, with Australians, with South Africans. And with a unique, young gent from England. In fact, she had become the most popular girl on the base. Her knowledge of cultures grew quickly as did her appetite. But she wanted more—more of what, she wasn’t exactly sure, but she definitely wanted more. So when her parents told her she was betrothed to the Greek, she just would not accept it.
That afternoon when Dita went home, she found her mother, a large woman whose size equaled her patience, sitting at the kitchen table reading the newspaper. She said nothing to Dita, put down the paper, walked upstairs, and shut the door. Dita could feel her heart beat faster; she knew that her mother would end up getting her way, but Dita decided that afternoon she would not think about her upcoming doom. She was supposed to meet The Greek any day now. They wanted her to marry someone she had never even met! Instead of worrying about a possible betrothal, Dita opened her armoire and selected a yellow dress with small daisies on it. It looked a bit too summery and light, but she wore it anyway and put on bright red lipstick that didn’t really go with the dress, but went with the times. Then she quietly went downstairs and sat in the living room. If her mother came down, Dita would say she was going out with a group of friends, but her mother never descended when the doorbell rang. As she sat there staring at the floor, a long “Diiiiing” and a short, but loud “DONG” echoed through the house. Dita opened the door quickly, and in front of her stood a gallant English man by the name of Henry. Henry Archibald Hadley. Despite his lean contexture, squirrel-looking face, and intensely small hands, he was dashing. Though awkward at times, he was certainly perfect—and a real gentleman.
Smiling with his exaggerated front teeth, he asked Dita if she felt like going to the theatre or to the ice cream parlor. She didn’t feel like talking. Gone with the Wind was playing again, having finally made it to Egypt years after being released, and even though Dita had already seen it twice with other dates, she chose the theatre. She loved Scarlett, hated Rhett. When Rhett had the gall to ask Scarlett if she ever thought “of marrying just for fun,” Dita squirmed in her seat. Dita wished she had the courage to tell her mother what Scarlett had replied: “Marriage, fun? Fun for men you mean.” Marriage. It was too much to think about, so, like Scarlett, she decided she would not think about it—at least not on that day.
The sun burned the afternoon sky as she escaped into the dark theatre with Henry. His arm immediately wrapped around the seat behind her, making her feel secure; then lifting it slowly, he laid his arm on her shoulder. His hand hung like a dead fish, his fingers dangling dangerously close to her perked-up breasts. She lost track of the movie and enjoyed the warmth of his embrace. After a few minutes, he moved his arm, put his hand timidly on her leg while the heat of his sweaty palm radiated up her thigh, settling between her legs to a spot that was getting hotter and wetter by the moment. Then she heard Rhett’s voice: “With enough courage, you can do without a reputation.” Dita leaned over and peered into the Englishman’s eyes, without any hesitation, kissed him long and hard. They necked through the whole movie, tongues in a wrestling match, his gentle hands, cautiously, sliding up and down her legs—but never too far up. Dita could feel him trembling; she was pushing him to his limit, so before the final scene, he asked her: “Shall we leave and go for a drive?” Dita nodded, yes, that would be a good idea.
They walked, with urgency yet respect, arm-in-arm out of the theatre and to his Jeep. Once they got in, the necking started all over. She kissed him hard. He responded. He was pushing against her. She could feel him getting bigger. She pushed back. His arms unwrapped. Time slowed down while Henry delicately began unbuttoning the bodice of her dress, looking, so genuinely into Dita’s eyes, begging for permission, and she could feel her insides throbbing. It felt so good and so right, so why was she suddenly pushing him away? Why were girls told over and over that these feelings were wrong? That only bad girls did these things? Bad girls, dirty girls; girls who men would not marry? It was only a few weeks before when she was doing these things with the South African. The only difference was that Dirk hadn’t taken so kindly in the same situation, and when Dita told Dirk to stop, he grew angry and took her home. But Henry was different. He was wholesome. He was English. Suddenly he pulled back and said: “I’m sorry. I’m so sorry, my dear Dita. I don’t know what got into me. I want you to know that you are very special. And when this war is over, I plan on marrying you.” Her smile faded as she heard those dreadful words that she had been trying to escape all day. From feelings of guilt, she was instantly irritated. She coyly kissed him again, and asked him to drive her home. Despite being a bit annoyed, she knew Henry was genuine, but it didn’t matter and she didn’t care; it was getting late, and there would be no time to change if she didn’t bid adieu to Henry immediately.
Just as she was walking in the front door, with one last tender kiss on Henry’s lips, she could hear the back doorbell ringing. Some houses in Alexandria had two entrances: guests entered from the front, hired help from the back. The back entrance came complete with a porch, door, doorbell, and number, so most foreigners confused the front for the back and the back for the front. For Dita it was perfect. Good-bye to English suitor at the front door, hello Dirk at the back. She had barely shut the door on hapless Henry when the second bell rang again, and again, sounding more anxious with every ring. Dita worried her parents would come downstairs, and her father almost did, until she heard her mother say to him, “It’s probably a late delivery. Stay here. Dita can get it.” Did her mother really expect a delivery at this time of the night, or was she in essence delivering Dita? Either way, she didn’t have time to contemplate it further. It was Saturday night. There were social clubs, free food, and lots of young, strong Allies. She was having the time of her life.
Dita knew she didn’t have time to change after all, but before going to the other door, she glanced over at the mirror, wiping her mouth where another man’s kisses had been, and quickly reapplied her lipstick. She opened the back door as Dirk grabbed her and began to kiss her voraciously. He immediately slid his hand between her legs and under her dress—rude, savage—but she loved it.
“Stop . . .” she whispered, “We must go. My parents will come down.” She knew she was in for a wild night because Dirk would not like being shut out three times. He was her bold South African “boyfriend,” tall, rugged with Popeye arms. He had been away for a few weeks, but now he was back. He stared at her and smacked her bottom as they moved away from the house. Dita laughed. Dirk jumped on his motorcycle, patted the seat behind him, and Dita smiled as she spread her legs and got on, lacing her arms tightly around his waist, laying her head on his back. This was freedom. This was happiness. Dirk reached back and ran his calloused hand alongside her leg as far up as it would go in that position.
“Are you ready, Doll?”
“Yes!” And inside she heard herself say: yes, yes, yes! She would be courageous and she would not allow others to dictate her reputation. She had decided. It was her body, her choice—one of the few choices she had left.
Tonight would be the night.