I sold my car and gave my suits to charity. Olympic Airlines had a stand-by ticket available, and in ten hours I landed in Athens.
I took a bus that dropped me near Syntagma Square. The street was dry and dusty, the pavement radiated heat, autos honked, buses rumbled and belched black diesel fumes that choked the air with a pungent odor. Sweat soaked through my shirt as I carried my backpack through the gray, low-rise, concrete labyrinth that was downtown Athens. I walked until I found a quiet oasis in the pedestrian-only Plaka section of town and sat at one of the outdoor tables of the ivy-draped Delphi Taverna. The waiter, a bored-looking fifty-something with greasy black hair, walked over like I’d disturbed his break. I ordered a coffee and asked directions for the bus to the Peloponnese. He retreated into the kitchen, and emerged with a dark-haired man with sculpted features, like me in his early thirties. He approached with a confident stride. He recognized that I was an American.
He said, “You’re from New York?”
“My Uncle Tassos lives in Astoria. I love New York.” He introduced himself as Achilles.
“My name’s Robert.”
Achilles sat down and told the waiter to bring two coffees. He said, “The Peloponnese is a big place. You have a specific town in mind?”
“Arcadia,” I said.
Achilles laughed. “Arcadia is utopia only for sheep.” Achilles sat back.. “Most guys come to Greece and head straight for the islands to look for Aphrodite. What’s your story?”
“Yeah, well, I’ve started a no-female diet. I tossed my ex-girlfriend’s picture into the airport trash. It was either kill her new boyfriend, or live on a different continent.” I sipped the coffee. “Maybe I’ll go to Meteora and stay with the monks.”
Achilles smiled. “My friend, the cure for a woman is another woman. Why don’t you remain in Athens? I’ll show you the clubs. I need waiters who speak English. You can work here, and earn some money for your travels. I’ll help you find a cheap place to stay.”
The Acropolis’s rocky cliff was above us, and I could see the marble columns of the Parthenon, pink in the early sunlight, framed by a cloudless blue sky. I thought, nice office, and said, “What the hell. Sure. Thanks.”
I rented a pension with a shared toilet near the taverna, and bought a couple of white shirts and the black slacks: the uniform of the wait staff. The job was manic lunches and dinners. In between, I watched people and ate free food. I grew a mustache, and the tourists took me for a Greek, so for amusement I faked an accent and smiled when my English was complimented. I thought about Achilles’s advice, and gave free baklava to the Nordic girls who came to the taverna. Bibi, a straw blonde schoolteacher from Malmö in a halter-top with a lovely little nose, took me up on an invitation to see the sights, and we ended up in my room. After sex, she jumped out of bed like I was something to cross off her list, and I felt like I’d been given a tip. I continued to give women free sweets and free tours, but medicinal sex wasn’t Elysium.
Achilles and I played tennis. He’d competed on the international circuit before he blew his ACL, and he sent me into the fence chasing his topspin serve.
One evening over a couple of beers he talked about his injury. “After my knee went, I didn’t want to see anybody. Tennis was competition, money,” he grinned at me, “and women. I had an invitation to play Roland Garros before I tore up my knee.” Achilles gazed into the distance. “I’m getting back into shape, and my agent promised me a spot on the satellite tour as soon as I’m ready.” He smiled. “We can travel Europe together.”
Achilles never had more than a casual relationship with any woman, but lately he was excited about a newfound interest, a young lady from Crete visiting her cousin in Athens, so I asked about her.
“She wants to get married,” he said. “But this is Greece. Men are in charge.”
One evening I was alone in my whitewashed room, when there was a knock at the door. Achilles had another man with him. “Kalispera – good evening.” I’d picked up enough Greek to get around.
“This is Costas.” Achilles jerked his head toward the second man. Costas was big for a Greek, about six-two, heavy, with a large black mustache. He and I exchanged a perfunctory handshake, and both men entered. I gave Achilles a beer, Costas grunted a refusal, and they sat on a pair of orange crates that were my furniture while I perched on the edge of my bed.
Achilles fidgeted and shot glances at Costas who scowled like a gargoyle. Achilles took a deep breath and said, “I’m getting married. To Sophia, you know, the girl I spoke to you about.” He pointed with the neck of his bottle. “Costas is her brother. I’d like you to be my koumbaros, the best man at the wedding. We’re getting married at Sophia’s home-village of Castelli on the island of Crete, in a week, the Monday after Easter.” Achilles took a long swig of his beer.
My eyes widened, and I leaned back on my elbows. I didn’t blurt out “so soon?” In the Orthodox Greek Church, there are no weddings during Lent. Clearly, Sophia was pregnant. The man who dishonored a girl triggered a vendetta with her clan, and Costas wasn’t letting Achilles out of his sight. I gazed at Costas, who crossed his arms over his belly, then back at Achilles who looked at me down the neck of his bottle.
I said, “Sure, of course.”
Achilles rocked forward and put the beer on the floor. Costas placed his ham hock fists on his knees.
Achilles said, “Robert, that’s great. Thanks.”
It dawned on me that in Greece the koumbaros was family, and Costas would hold me responsible for Achilles’s actions. My face got warm.
Saturday at dusk, the ferry to Crete smelled of diesel fuel when it left from Athens’s port of Pireaus. Poseidon’s temple on the promontory of Sounion faded in a pink-blue sunset as we slapped swells along the slate-colored Mediterranean. I lay back on a sling deck-chair, all I could afford for the night’s sail, and drifted in and out of sleep. I awoke when a blast from the ship’s horn signaled we were pulling into port with the vision of an angry-faced Costas still in my head.
Achilles and Sophia were waiting as I walked off the exit ramp. We were introduced with kisses. Sophia was petite with long dark hair and an attractive face, curvy, but not showing her pregnancy. I threw my duffle bag in the back of Achilles’s Range Rover, jumped into the back seat and we sped off. Sophia talked about expanding the Delphi Taverna and her plan to open a second restaurant. She had her eye on a house in an upscale suburb of Kifissia. Achilles just grunted, but I thought, say goodbye to the pro tennis circuit.
We turned off the paved road, onto a steep, winding dirt stretch. In the rosy afternoon light, the Rover’s engine whined through sharp turns, and we looked out onto brown rolling terrain dotted with groves of olive trees and vineyards scattered between simple stone farmhouses and wooded areas that gave off the scent of pine. We entered the small village of Castelli, just a few scattered simple houses on a rocky hillside. Chickens squawked and scurried to avoid the wheels of the car while flocks of goats bleated in the grassy glen, and we smelled the residual smoke of outdoor brick ovens as we pulled up to the home of Sophia’s parents. The yellow stone building was small, on one level with an orange-tiled roof and a planked wooden door. A ceramic window-box burst with red and pink flowers. Achilles led me to a wooden picnic table in the garden, while Sophia went into the house to prepare some of the Easter leftovers. The adults of the village were having a nap after gorging themselves on the afternoon’s feast, and while I ate, some children stood around us and stared.
Over dinner, Achilles talked about the wedding ceremony and the vows he and Sophia would take. In Greece, the woman still takes an oath to honor and obey her husband, but if the bride steps on the groom’s foot as she says the words, all bets are off. That was something, Achilles told me while Sophia was inside, he wouldn’t abide. I smiled to myself as he spoke: the Greeks had given us democracy and philosophy. Now, they’d invented an early warning system for a married life of hell. The roasted lamb was tasty, so I just nodded and continued to eat under the eyes of my young audience.
After dinner, I met Sophia’s handlebar-mustachioed uncle, Nikos, who wore suspenders and a brimmed cap. His wife, Soula, was dignified with a deeply lined face. Her printed dress hung down to her ankles and she wore a light-blue apron that tied around back. The couple graciously offered to let me stay in their stone, four-room, home. When I caught a yawn, they directed me to the sitting room off the kitchen to a daybed laid out with fresh linen, and I quickly fell asleep.
A rooster crowed and my eyes opened. Nearby, goats were crying, and the bouquet of fresh coffee wafted in from the kitchen. I shuffled in and said, “Kalimera – good morning.” A pot of filtered coffee was waiting for me, and I gave my hosts a heart-felt “Efharisto – thank you.”
“This is our daughter, Evi,” said Soula.
Evi walked into the kitchen from the outside garden, her form silhouetted by the bright sunlight behind. As I stepped toward her, huge brown eyes froze me, and I understood why Adam had taken the apple. She closed in to greet me with a kiss, her hands slid up my back and I felt her against my chest, a hint of breath followed by a caress on my left cheek. She smelled like verbena. The first kiss complete, her face passed mine with eyes closed, and a second caress brushed my right cheek. My heart started to pound.
Soula asked if I wanted milk in my coffee.
I tore my eyes off Evi. “Yes, please.”
“Evi, get Robert some milk.”
Evi pirouetted on bare feet and went outside. I followed and stopped to sit at the white and blue tile-inlay wooden table in the outside garden. She corralled a goat, knelt and began to milk the teat. Evi was twenty with long black hair and a tan that was golden in the sunlight. She wore a fitted white Olympiakos T-shirt and cut-off jeans. My God, I thought, she even has beautiful feet. From behind, Soula came with a large cup of black coffee and placed it over my shoulder on the table.
Evi released the goat and the animal bleated its way back toward the flock. She put the pitcher of milk on the table and faced me leaning on a chair.
She said, “Have you ever had goats’ milk?”
“No, and never milk straight from the source.”
Evi laughed. “Goats’ milk helps with digestion. You should drink it while you’re in Greece. How long are you staying?”
“Greece feels more like home every day.”
Evi said, “Good.” She smiled, and her hand lightly brushed my shoulder as she walked back into the kitchen.
I didn’t turn. I figured Evi’s parents were watching, and I didn’t want to be too obvious. I poured some milk into my coffee, and Nikos came to the table with a bottle of tsikoudia, Cretan brandy. I declined a shot, but he poured himself one and engaged me in Greek conversation. As the morning passed, people of the village dropped by. They shared a quick tsikoudia with Nikos and smiled as they gave me the once over. Evi was in and out of the house as she went about her chores, and we exchanged small smiles. I wanted to talk with her, but her father had me cornered.
Soula announced it was time for lunch, which was great, since I starved to be with Evi. The four of us sat around the kitchen table piled high with Easter’s leftovers. Nikos fetched a two-liter glass bottle that once held Coke, but now contained his homemade wine. He offered to fill my water glass, at which Soula shook her head to discourage me.
“Too strong,” she said.
Evi giggled. “My father thinks he’s Dionysus. He wants you to discover yourself in the ecstasy of wine. Could be scary.” Evi’s voice was throaty, almost breathless.
I picked up my glass and said, “Tha thoume – we’ll see.”
Nikos filled my cup with wine the color of mahogany and the bouquet of velvet cherries.
I said to Evi, “You recommended goats’ milk like a prescription. Do you work in health care?”
“I’m a nurse in a clinic, but I prefer homeopathic cures. Olive oil for the heart, verbena wards off mosquitoes, and yogurt relieves the sting of sunburn. Stuff like that.”
Nikos refilled my glass.
She said, “I want to work in a bigger hospital and maybe even go to the University of Athens Medical School.”
Evi’s voice intoxicated me.
She said, “I’d rather go to school in Western Europe, but I’ll need a scholarship, and that’s not likely to happen.”
I said, “You can’t give up on your dream. I’m sure you’ll be a great doctor.” I sounded like an idiot, but Evi smiled.
“You’re the first man who’s ever encouraged me. The men in the village want a woman who can cook and bear sons.” She gave a sidelong glance to her mother. “Women in Castelli are very traditional. I respect my mother’s life, but I don’t want to live it. How do you feel about a woman who wants a career?”
I said, “My mother stayed at home and raised me. I’m grateful, but thinking back she really didn’t have a choice. Why shouldn’t a woman have the chance to fulfill her potential? Makes her more interesting. I say, go for it.”
Evi beamed at me, and I thought, Yes.
For the rest of the lunch I drank in Evi’s voice, and her smile was like an opiate. Beautiful, smart, and affectionate. A movie played inside my brain; I swept Evi into my arms and ran off. The ladies started to clean the table, and Nikos said he would take a nap. As I rose from my chair, the wine hit me, and my legs wobbled. I barely made it to the daybed and passed out.
I woke with a start. It was time to get ready for the wedding. My hosts’ indoor plumbing was a cold-water shower, and I leaned on the tile and let the water flow down my head, resolving that I had to pull myself together. When I was dressed, Achilles appeared at the door wearing a tuxedo. I looked around for Evi, but she was in her room. Tradition required that the groom and his koumbaros be waiting at the church when the bride arrived, so Achilles and I started walking down the winding dirt road. The late afternoon sun painted the horizon blue-gray and rose. Around us the hillside was a mottled patchwork of stunted trees, bare rocks, and tangled bushes. A breeze carried the scent of flowers, and the song of cicadas filled the afternoon.
Achilles said, “Robert, I really appreciate your coming to Crete. Don’t worry, marriage and the baby won’t change our friendship.” This was Achilles’s first reference to the reason for his hurry-up wedding, and I didn’t react. He changed the subject. “What do you think of Evi?” He shot me a sly grin.
“Is it that obvious?”
He laughed. “Does she feel the same?”
“I’m not sure.” His question stayed with me.
We passed the house of another of Sophia’s uncles, and he insisted we come inside. Hospitality required the offer of a drink, and I downed a small tsikoudia. In an instant, the repair that sleep and a cold shower had provided disappeared, and I hoped no one noticed my shakiness on the rest of the walk to the church.
Achilles and I arrived at the paved apron of a small, domed chapel where the male guests for the ceremony had gathered. Three musicians, led by a bouzouki player, plucked out the sharp metallic sound of a Greek folksong. Someone sang out, and we all turned to see Sophia, in an elaborate, white, lace-veiled wedding gown, leading an entourage of women from the village. I focused on Evi wearing a light-blue dress, and she smiled at me. We walked together behind Achilles and Sophia through the metal-clad double wooden doors into the tiny church to the center of the marble floor where the priest greeted the couple. The doors were closed with a bang, and the air inside quickly became hot. Bodies pressed close around me and, in my distressed state, sweat poured down my body like rain off a tin roof. As koumbaros, I had to place an orange blossom wreath on the head of both the bride and groom and switch them at three points in the ceremony, so I used the task as a point of concentration and shut out my dehydrated misery.
The priest was leading the couple through the vows of marriage. Suddenly, Achilles’s face went crimson. He tore the wreath off his head and walked away. In my distressed state, I thought I did something wrong. Then it hit me, Sophia stepped on Achilles’s foot. In a wave, Costas and the other men surged forward, grabbed Achilles, tore at his clothing, and yelled at him as he tried to pull away. Sophia stood stone-faced. The priest shielded Achilles with his body, pulled him towards a corner of the church, and the men respectfully receded.
Women wailed behind me. I walked the few steps to where the priest was talking intently to my disheveled friend. There were shouted threats, and the thought that Achilles and I were alone in this village gripped my gut. Achilles’s eyes darted as he listened to the priest, and I put my hand on his shoulder. He nodded that he’d continue the ceremony, and the priest softened his tone. A few safety pins were produced, and we repaired the tears in Achilles’s shirt and straightened his tuxedo. Achilles and the priest moved back to their places at the center of the church, and the priest sped through the remaining ritual. Around me, women were in tears, men grimaced, but the adrenaline rush of the last few minutes cleared my head. At the final amen, the crowd burst from the church, and the musicians, oblivious to the drama within, began to play.
As Achilles and Sophia left for the reception, Costas pulled me by the shoulder and told me that if Achilles hadn’t married Sophia, he wouldn’t have left the village alive. The look on Costas’s face told me, he’d have done me as well.
Outside, Evi took my arm and we walked to the storage building where the villagers were gathering. Her face was furrowed, and she said, “How can Achilles and Sophia survive such a beginning?” At the entrance, Evi stopped us, and her brown eyes held me. She said, “I hate it here, I have to get away.” There was a question in her eyes.
“I understand,” I said, and my pulse raced.
Evi’s mother called to her. She squeezed my arm as she left my side, and I wished I’d said more.
The building was cinder block with a metal roof. A wooden platform had been fashioned for the musicians, and the cement area in front of the band served as both a dance floor and the place to smash empty bottles of homemade wine in Greek-style celebration. Thrown bottles exploded like hand grenades into twinkling shards, and a sweeper weaved through the dancers and pushed glass into a corner. A lively Greek folksong competed with the din of conversation, eating, and drinking. The smell of roasted meat was in the air, and when Evi sat with her parents, I joined a silent and stoic Achilles and Sophia on wooden chairs around a picnic-style table. I ate some food and began to feel normal as the bouzouki music blared, the wine bottles shattered, and the people in the village danced.
Achilles rose from his seat with a scowl. He picked up a wooden chair and began beating it against the table and block wall. The legs and planked seat exploded like shrapnel until all he had in his hands were splintered remains. I thought Achilles would be set upon and stood ready for a fight. Instead, Costas and every man in the village crowded around Achilles in support of his outburst. Achilles grabbed another chair and proceeded to break it into a thousand pieces in front of his now appreciative audience. He called the band to play a special folk song and began a solitary dance – a series of squats, athletic leaps, twists and turns acted out in dramatic style, accompanied by an enthusiastic crowd shouting “opa” to his every move. Faces around me were smiling and I clapped and shouted along with the others. Achilles finished his solo dance, took Sophia’s hand, and called the guests to begin a traditional Greek horos.
Evi looked at me as she rose from her chair. I went to her, and put my arm around her waist. We linked with others in a small circle, and rhythmically stepped counterclockwise to the music. When the playing stopped, I faced her. She smiled, then her eyes looked past my shoulder, and her brow furrowed. I turned and saw a leaden-faced Costas. I asked Evi to take a walk outside.
She said, “I want to be with you, but we can’t go while he’s watching.”
Evi’s mother called her away.
I went to Achilles. He pulled me aside and asked, “Does the village think I’m a leader or a follower?”
I told him that the village knows he’s a man, and his face relaxed.
The dancing, drinking, bouzouki music and smashing bottles kept on, and outside the building some men fired shotguns at a sky of exploding stars. I knew the party would last until dawn. Costas looked drunk, and he was huddled with his friends. Evi and I had kept up a silent exchange of glances, and now I stared at her until her eyes rose to meet mine. As I held her gaze, I beckoned with my eyes, then stood and walked toward the entrance. When I got outside, I decided we couldn’t be seen walking together, so I hurried back to her house alone. Inside, I sat in the dark kitchen, waiting, with my heart racing in anticipation. I willed her to appear and when she didn’t, I imagined problems. Did Costas delay her? Did she expect me to wait for her? Was she afraid she’d be missed? As the clock in the kitchen ticked off the minutes, I despaired. She had second thoughts? No… Yet, she wasn’t there. The darkness of the room conspired with the alcohol and my depression. I needed to sleep. I held out hope. She’d wake me. I’d be warm, she’d smell of night air, hushing me as she crawled under the linen. I fantasized until I fell asleep.
In my dream, Evi came, her touch, her kiss woke me. She stroked my hair and placed her cheek against my face. I felt a tear.
“Robert, I can’t stay.”
She kissed my mouth, her lips were soft and moist. I lifted my arms to take her, but she held my wrists.
She said, “Not tonight,” kissed me again, and was gone.
The rooster and the goats signaled early light. No smell of coffee, no one else was up. Had Evi come; was it a dream? It seemed real. Should I go to her room? Don’t be insane. I closed my eyes. When I woke again I smelled the coffee, but there was no noise. I had a headache. I padded into the kitchen and drank my coffee black.
I sat alone, shooting glances at the door to Evi’s room, when Achilles and Costas came to the house. It was time to head back to Athens. There was thunder rumbling in the distance, and rain had started. Achilles said that he and Sophia would stay in Castelli for a while.
Costas raised his eyebrows at me and said, “Where’s Evi?” He laughed.
I stood and called out as I walked to her door. “Evi?” I banged the flat of my hand against the wood. “Evi?” I put my hand on the knob, and Costas’s forearm wrapped around my throat like a python. He pulled me back. He was cutting off my air. I tried to elbow him, then I yanked at his wrist, but he shook me like a dog’s toy.
Achilles stood frozen. I gasped “Get him off me.”
At once Achilles lunged onto Costas’s back and my attacker’s grip loosened enough for me to duck out of his hold. I turned and hit him as hard as I could in the face. Blood squirted from his nose and through the fingers of his hands as he went down to his knees. I heard Nikos run into the garden and shout for help. I threw open Evi’s door. She sat on her bed and hugged her knees.
I said, “If you want to leave, we must go now.”
Evi ran to her closet, pulled out a small suitcase, and started throwing in her clothes, some still on hangers.
Achilles looked outside. “Come on,” he said.
I grabbed Evi’s suitcase and put my arm around her. Outside a knot of men had gathered behind Nikos armed with shotguns and farm tools. From behind, Costas hit me: a thud on my skull, and blackness.
I coughed and awoke with a pain so sharp that tears squeezed from my eyes. I gripped the wooden arms of the sling chair; I was on the deck of the ferryboat back to Athens. I struggled to bring my head above the rail and confirmed that we’d not left the port. I ran my tongue over a few chipped teeth, then gently put my fingertips to the gash in my head. My hair was matted with dried blood, and the cut measured half my index finger. I grimaced through the pain of a cough and spit into my hand and was relieved to see that there was no blood. My cracked ribs hadn’t punctured a lung. My head had cleared to the point that I deduced the reason I wasn’t planted in the rocky soil of Castelli: Costas had decided that a dead American might invite the interest of the authorities. That also meant that a witness, like Achilles, didn’t need to be eliminated, and that Evi was okay.
I wasn’t going back to Athens. I pushed down on the arms of the chair to lift myself and shakily started to walk, cradling my ribs like a baby. I gauged what I looked like from the troubled faces of passengers who scurried out of my path as I moved, as if getting the hell beat out of you was contagious. I walked slowly, managing my breaths to ease the expansion of my rib cage. Even so, there were a few steps where I gasped. I made use of the guardrail and walked down the gangplank into the town of Heraklion and up to a small kiosk of newspapers, cigarettes and candy. The gunmetal-haired proprietor in a stained painter’s cap looked out at me from his picture window perch, dragged his wooden folding chair outside the kiosk and helped me sit down. He brought me a bottle of water and a pistelli, a honey, sesame treat that tasted like ambrosia. He had a telephone and called an ambulance then informed me that it might be a while before they arrived. I nodded and managed a smile and a “thanks.”
The wait gave me time to assess my plan. If I showed my face in Castelli, Costas would reconsider his decision to allow me to keep breathing. I’d have to enter quietly, contact Evi, and get us both out of there the same night. The plan was risky; they might spot me. They’d come after us. We’d need to hide out and probably leave Greece. I closed my eyes and recalled the warmth of Evi’s body; the touch of her lips, her scent. Last night wasn’t a dream, I was sure. Evi’s face, the smoldering way she looked at me from the bed when I told her we needed to go, steeled me. I had to see that look again.
Published by The Summerset Review, June 2012