I met you the first week I was in Athens. You were working as a waiter in the bar I liked so much, the one with the orange chairs. You walked over to my table and sat down, rolling a cigarette.
‘What’s your name?’ you asked me in English.
‘My name is Ainslie,’ I replied in Greek.
‘You speak Greek!’
‘Not very well,’ I said, this time in English.
‘I am Dimitris.’
You took a long drag of your cigarette and stared at me, then jumped up and returned to the bar.
I returned to my book.
‘I always wanted a girlfriend who had a name starting with A,’ you said a little later.
‘Oh, really? Why is that?’
‘So I could call her Aggie,’ you said. ‘From now on I am going to call you Aggie.’
‘From now on?’
‘Yes, didn’t you hear? We are about to fall in love.’
I was stunned by your confidence.
‘For all you know I could be spoken for,’ I said.
‘Even if you are, I still want you to meet me tomorrow.’
‘Just like that?’
‘Just like that. We will go to the market and then I will cook for you.’
‘How am I supposed to know if I can trust you?’
‘You can trust me.’
‘Just because you say so?’
‘Adonis, am I trustworthy?’ you called out to the other waiter behind the bar.
‘Not in a million years,’ Adonis replied, and you burst out laughing.
You laughed so much tears came to your eyes, and perhaps that was why I agreed.
‘Okay,’ I said. ‘I’ll meet you tomorrow.’
‘Wonderful,’ you grinned. ‘You won’t regret it.’
The next day we met at the farmers market in Kolonaki. The road was closed off and the street was lined with stalls selling various produce, each stall specialising in something different. There was a strong smell of roasting meat in the air coming from the souvlaki stand—plumes of grey smoke curled upwards from the meat-juices dripping onto the charcoal; and the light was doing its thing. There is something extraordinary about the quality of light in Greece. It is luminous and gives the impression of being more white than yellow. Henry Miller once described it as having a transcendental quality, of being either instantly curative or mad-making. You rushed over to me and kissed me on each cheek. ‘Come with me,’ you said.
You filled a satchel with olives, tomatoes, parsley, dill, spring onions and dried figs. As we were leaving we passed a fish stand.
‘Have you ever eaten fish from the sea?’ you asked me.
I shook my head, my mouth full of fruit. You called to the vendor and pointed at two medium-sized fish. His cart was beautifully decorated and the fish were displayed on two large mounds of ice as if jumping through waves. I’d never seen such an elegant display. The vendor wrapped them in waxy paper and you stashed them into your bag with the rest of our shopping.
‘You’re going to love the fish from the sea,’ you said. ‘It’s less salty.’
We walked to your apartment, where you began to prepare lunch. Your house was intriguing; it was not at all what I had expected. It was full of books and records and framed theatre posters.
‘You’re an actor?’ I asked.
‘A director,’ you said.
‘And these are productions you have put on?’
‘Most of them,’ you replied.
‘Nice curtains,’ I joked.
‘You like them?’
‘No, I think they’re awful!’
‘Well you wouldn’t be the first to hate them. My friends tease me too, but they have no taste. Like you, I am afraid to say.’
‘What are you making?’ I asked.
‘We will begin with egg and lemon soup. Do you know it?’
‘Avgolemono? It’s my favourite!’
‘Mine too. Today we will eat avgolemono soup, followed by baked fish.’
‘Where did you learn to cook like this?’
‘I was a … what do you call it? A mummy’s boy?’
‘Oh yes, I can imagine.’ I said.
‘In order to spend time with her I practically lived in the kitchen, where I fell in love with cooking.’
You filled my glass with ouzo and ice as I sat watching you.
‘Could you help me for a moment?’ you asked.
‘Of course,’ I replied.
‘I need you to pour this broth very slowly into the bowl while I whisk these eggs.’
You whisked and I poured.
‘You’ve done this before,’ you said.
‘Yes the women in my family make a “dtst dtst dtst” sound with their mouths when they do this bit. It’s supposed to stop it from curdling.’
‘It’s exciting, no? If you get it wrong, it’s a disaster. Like love. It is not easy getting the egg and lemon to sit well together, you know.’
Everything about you interested me. You said that you thought the Acropolis needed to be destroyed. ‘Blown up’ were your words. You insisted that Greeks would not free themselves of the past while the Acropolis dominated the physical and imaginary landscape. I thought about the things that loomed large in my own life, my mother in particular.
‘You’re right,’ I said after we finished eating.
‘About the fish?’
‘No. I don’t regret it.’
You threw down your napkin, and grabbed my hand.
‘Kiss me,’ you said, and pulled me into your lap.
‘I am a little nervous,’ I confessed.
You had the most extraordinary eyes. Powerful eyes. Deity eyes, that transfixed me. The feeling of being looked at by you was palpable. It lifted me out of the fog of myself. It was like exquisite pain relief. But it was also excruciating, because it was completely out of my control. I felt like I was always waiting for you to call or text. Luckily you did both often.
‘What are these?’ you asked, poking at my thighs.
‘Aren’t you too young for these?’
‘I’ve had them since I was a teenager,’ I said.
‘You should be too young for those.’
‘I should be, but I’m not…’
‘I have a love story for you,’ you announced a few weeks later. ‘It’s about a man and a woman who move in together,’ you said, helping me with the zip of my dress. The balcony doors were open and a cool breeze flowed through the house.
‘Move in with me,’ you said.
‘Does this mean you love me?’ I asked, wincing even as I said it.
‘Just pack your things. I want you to come home with me.’
I only had a few bags so I bought three little goldfish for the occasion. Two of them died almost immediately. The smallest was the first to go. Its gills swelled up and it lay at the bottom of the glass bowl for days before it finally died. It was agony. I cried, and you teased me.
‘Haven’t you ever lost a pet?’ I asked.
‘I lost a dog once,’ you replied. ‘But a fish is not a dog. It’s not the same thing.’
The first thing I learned when I moved in with you was how particular you were. The dishes had to be done in a certain way, potatoes had to be peeled straight into the bin, never in to the sink as I was used to doing. Floors were mopped every Sunday, never on a weekday … the list goes on. Whenever you scolded me for not doing this or that correctly I imagined your mother in the room with us, nodding in approval at her perfect son. She was a constant presence in our relationship, even though I never met her.
‘Squeeze my thighs, baby, like you are making meatballs,’ you begged me.
‘Like this?’ I asked, grabbing on to your hairy thighs and kneading them as best I could.
‘Exactly like that,’ you replied.
I didn’t hide my body from you as I had from other men. Instead I walked around our apartment in all my plumpness. My thighs like the columns of the Acropolis—all the better to squeeze you with.
Meeting you was quite literally like stepping into my own personal fairy tale. It felt too good to be true. To receive attention from you was like being adored by the sun. But just as it would come, it would also vanish. Some days you paid me barely any attention at all. Somedays you came home late and it felt as if there were a vast ocean between us. I hated those days.
‘I am going to cook, and then we’re going to Spyro and Eleni’s party,’ you yelled out from the kitchen. You wore a short ruffled apron and a tea towel slung over your left shoulder. You cut into a tomato and it bled onto the chopping board. I remember thinking that eventually my heart would bleed like that too if I let myself love you any more than I already did.
After dinner, we walked to the party. I wore a linen dress and dark lipstick. My high-heeled clogs were tricky to walk in on the uneven Athenian footpaths.
‘Why do you always wear those impractical shoes?’ you asked.
‘You’d prefer me not to make an effort?’
‘I am just saying, you call yourself a feminist and then…’ you trailed off.
‘Aggie, please, I don’t want to fight.’
‘Jesus, you started it.’
I broke free from your arm and walked a few paces ahead of you.
‘Come back.’ You laughed, which made me even more furious.
‘You treat me like a fucking child, Dimitris.’
‘We’re here, baby,’ you said and pulled me into your arms. ‘I don’t think you’re a child. I think you’re a beautiful koala.’
I rolled my eyes and you hit the buzzer. Spyros’s voice came over the intercom.
‘Koalas are fat,’ I said as we stepped into the elevator. ‘And lazy.’
You squeezed my waist and gave me a kiss.
We took a tiny elevator to the top floor where Spyros and his girlfriend Eleni lived. ‘Welcome!’ Spyros said. We followed him into the lounge room where a group of people sat on the couch, others spilling onto the floor. The room was filled with cigarette smoke. Everyone stopped talking and turned to greet you. You kissed all the women on each cheek and made yourself at home without introducing me. I wondered how many other women you had brought along to gatherings like this.
One woman in the group stood out to me immediately. She had a striking 1920s-style bobbed haircut and wore tight black jeans and top that exposed her midriff. She dominated the attention of everyone, male and female. I wondered what it would be like to be so beautiful and to know it. She was Italian, here in Greece visiting the university where Spyros worked.
‘Does anyone have any pot?’ I heard her ask.
You pulled a tin from your coat pocket and smiled at her.
‘To be honest with you, all I live for is sex and marijuana,’ she said casually.
Her pronunciation of ‘honest’ began with a strong ‘h’ sound like for ‘heart’. I rolled my eyes and hoping no-one had noticed, got up and went outside to the spacious terrace where Spyros was smoking a cigarette. Spyros and Eleni lived on the top floor of an apartment with a breathtaking view towards Mount Lycabettus, which rose sharply out of the Athenian skyline in an upside-down v-shape.
‘Look at your view!’ I said.
‘It’s nice, no?’
‘If I could I would put that mountain into my luggage and take her home with me.’
‘Him, you would take him home.’ He laughed. ‘The noun is masculine. It’s O Lycabettus.’
‘Well, it is a she for me regardless.’ I said.
‘No, it is definitely masculine. That’s why you like him so much.’ Spyros winked at me and then disappeared inside.
Moments later you joined me.
‘You really should give her a go, you know,’ you said, without explaining who you meant.
‘Your new girlfriend, you mean?’
‘I only have eyes for you, doll.’
‘You do not.’
I finished my drink and we returned to the lounge room together, where a heated conversation was taking place about America and how the CIA had funded all kinds of cultural activity, just after the Second World War, including the Abstract Expressionists. An avid anti-American, it was one of your favourite topics.
You said, ‘When you think about it, it’s brilliant. Not only is it a form of backward censorship, but it also achieves more than one aim. On the one hand, they finally get to have their own modern art movement, and at the same time it was the death of representation in painting. It was the death of meaning, of politics full stop. I take my hat off to the bastards. Now pass me that joint!’
Spyros sat down next to me, so close our elbows were touching. I blushed.
‘You speak Greek?’ he asked me.
‘A little. My parents are Greek.’
‘Is that what brought you here?’
‘I guess so, yes.’
‘How are you enjoying it so far?’
‘I love it. I want to stay.’
‘There are quite a lot of Greeks in Australia, no?’
‘Yes, there are.’
‘Australia seems so far away.’
‘It is far away.’ I laughed. ‘Actually to tell you the truth I have mixed feelings about Australia. I mean, I don’t feel like I belong there fully. I am not especially proud of being Australian or anything.’
‘I am very proud to be Italian,’ the Italian contested. Everyone laughed and I felt stupid. I hadn’t realised the others were listening.
‘I agree with Ainslie,’ you said, coming to my rescue.
‘I am all for destroying our cultural identities. In fact I am always saying we should blow up that Acropolis of ours. What good is it to us now?’
‘Oh, Dimitris…’ Eleni sighed. ‘You’re so dramatic.’
‘No, but really. I am serious. Apart from being very beautiful, and it is
beautiful, what good is it? I think it has castrated us creatively. We cannot live up to its monumental symbolism.’
‘Dimitris tells me that you are a writer,’ Spyros turned to me.
‘I am putting together a collection of new Greek writing for the university. I wonder if you would like to put something in it?’
‘Do I qualify as Greek?’
‘Then I would love to,’ I said.
On the tram to the beach one Saturday we sat beside a couple who looked about my
parents’ age. The woman was sitting on her partner’s lap and they were both giggling like children. They seemed so in love.
‘I am laughing because it has been a while,’ the woman said, clapping her hand around her mouth.
I wondered whether she meant a while since she had sat on his lap or a while since he had touched her like that. She looked over at you and I tried to imagine what she was thinking about us. Did she think that we were in love, too?
Sometimes you teased me relentlessly and we would fight. You seemed to know exactly how to get at me. I was too sensitive, you claimed. One night, in the midst of a petty argument, you even put your index finger in your mouth and pulled on your cheek, in imitation of a fish caught on a hook.
Early one morning, I felt you get out of the bed and I registered that your mobile had been ringing for a long time. I considered staying in bed, but the thought of coffee was what finally got me up. You were standing naked in the loungeroom. I collected your jeans and a T-shirt off the floor, delivering them to you on my way to the kitchen, where I emptied the used coffee beans from the percolator and made a fresh pot. Your voice rose sharply as you stepped into your jeans and I wondered who you were speaking to. You sounded angry.
The coffee pot gurgled, and I filled two small cups as the aroma wafted through the apartment, lodging itself into those floral curtains you liked so much. I took a cup over to you, placing it on the phone table. Everything okay? I whispered, but you just frowned and reached for your cigarettes. I left you and your frown and wandered into the lounge room, where I opened my notebook and began writing.
Two cups of coffee and a piece of toast later you hung up the telephone.
You were halfway through rolling a cigarette and you paused to lick the paper and make the final roll. ‘My mother is unwell,’ you said. ‘I have to go.’
You threw on some shoes, grabbed your pouch of tobacco and left.
The kitchen tap dripped.
I texted you to say I hoped everything was okay and then showered and got ready to go out. I couldn’t bear to stay inside waiting for your reply. I took the metro downtown, where I walked from Syntagma to Exarcheia. I sat at one of the cafes in the square and ordered a carafe of wine. An elfish woman with a violin came around busking, followed by a stream of Bangladeshi and African migrants selling DVDs and various kitsch paraphernalia. I tried to read but couldn’t concentrate so I walked back to Syntagma where I took the metro to Thissio. I bought a cheese pastry from a street vendor and then bought a ticket to the Acropolis. I climbed up the marble steps to the top where I marveled at the view and collected a few rocks, slipping one of them into my pocket as a keepsake.
On the way home I stopped at our local store. If I had been the gambling type I would have placed the biggest bet I could have—I was in that kind of mood. Instead I intended to spend all the money in my wallet. I felt like splashing out, being extravagant. I hunted the aisles, even searching through the array of kitsch souvenirs beside the counter. The young shopkeeper smiled at me with such warmth that I let myself imagine him wrapping his strong arms around my waist and whispering, ‘Everything will be just fine, I promise.’ I could practically feel the heat of his breath on my neck. Instead he rung up the till and I blushed. At the back of the store, through a narrow doorway, an elderly couple were arguing.
I returned to the flat with two bottles of wine, savoury biscuits, fresh bread, three different cheeses, dried figs, fresh tomatoes and a set of emerald-green plastic worry beads. I opened a bottle of wine, poured a glass and ran a bath.
The kitchen tap continued to drip.
You still hadn’t replied to my message, but I was determined not to allow it to overwhelm me. I emailed a few friends to say I missed them, though I said nothing of my loneliness. I posted pictures of my outing to social media and refreshed my browser to see if anyone had commented yet. ‘Great photos!’ wrote one friend. Heart emoji another.
That night I barely slept as I waited for the sound of your key in the front door. I imagined you in the arms of another woman. I was scared of how afraid I was to lose you. I had made you my excuse to stay in Athens. Your body was Greece and I tied myself to you like a mast. I couldn’t sleep, so I got up to heat some milk. As I placed the pot on the stove you came in.
‘I’m making some hot milk—do you want some?’ I asked, as if you had been home all along. You walked straight to the shower without answering and I scolded myself for being so accommodating. Why didn’t I come into the bathroom to ask you where you had been and why you hadn’t come home earlier, or at least called to tell me not to worry? I wished I could be more assertive.
I heard the sound of the faucet turning off and you getting into bed. I tried to read but couldn’t concentrate, opened by laptop but couldn’t write, thought about going out and even changed my clothes a few times, stood in front of the bathroom mirror criticising my body, and finally made up a bed on the couch and sought out sleep.
The next morning you left home earlier than usual. I heard you leave but pretended to be asleep. I made coffee and tried again to write but couldn’t. Not long afterwards I heard a loud thud, like the sound of a wet towel flung against a hard surface. On the other side of the balcony door was a small bird, a little bigger than a sparrow, lying dead on the balcony floor. I opened the door and bundled the little creature into my hands. The glass wasn’t very thick and it didn’t make sense that it could have died on impact like that. I took it over to one of the neglected pot plants on our balcony and buried it. Then, I started to cry.
Making friends is sometimes comparable to falling in love, only better, because there is so much less anxiety about it. Meeting Maria certainly was thrilling as when I met you. From our first meeting we spoke almost every day and met in person at least once a week. Despite becoming close I was still careful what I said to her in case she repeated it to Carlos and he passed it on to you. Usually I made it a rule not to speak about our relationship to her at all, but occasionally I was too busy thinking about myself to care whether or not what I said to her would get back to you.
‘I think men love differently than women,’ I said, the moment Maria opened the door that day.
‘Come in honey, tell me everything,’ she replied.
‘Why do they get to be so confident?’ I whined.
‘Men? Oh honey, you are asking the wrong questions. But why don’t you pour us each a drink and I will bring out some olives.’
‘What are the right questions then?’ I asked.
‘Well, to begin with, there is no point in trying to understand men. Or trying to imitate them.’
‘I am so sick of being a woman. I wish I was a man.’
Maria laughed, her fantastic German laugh and reached for her cigarettes.
‘You don’t wish you were a man—you just wish you didn’t feel so vulnerable.’
I wanted to cook for you for a change, to make a reconciliatory dinner. I bought some groceries and a bottle of retsina. When I got home you weren’t there. I waited for hours. Seated, like a cliché, at our kitchen table with dinner on the stove and candles lit, making my way through the bottle of fortified wine. The fabric of my dress was itchy and the lining was a little too tight at the waist. I felt overdressed and desperate. Eventually I stumbled to bed, too drunk to worry about you anymore.
I was still passed out when you finally came home. You came in and turned the light on, which woke me. Under the sheets I was still fully clothed.
‘I thought you might be here fucking some other guy,’ you said, walking out of the room, leaving the light on. Moments later the sound of one of your records blared from the lounge room.
You yelled, ‘Aggie, come here!’, walking into the bedroom and dragging me by the arm into the lounge room. I felt disoriented and had a headache. I just wanted to sleep.
‘Wake up! I want to dance with you,’ you said, pouring some vodka into a glass.
‘What time is it?’
I sat on the couch watching you dance surprisingly well given how drunk you were. You stopped only to throw back more alcohol and to grab at my hands, urging me to join you. You looked happy, which made me angry under the circumstances.
‘I am going back to bed,’ I said.
You didn’t say anything.
This time it was you who slept on the couch.
It was close to the deadline for the anthology and I was feeling uncertain that what I had written was any good. When you arrived home I was lying on the couch, close to tears.
‘What’s wrong?’ you asked, worried. I burst into tears as you sat down next to me.
‘Did something happen? Has someone hurt you?’
‘No, I am okay. It’s just … sometimes I think my writing is terrible.’
‘Oh Jesus, is that all?’ you said, getting up from the couch and walking into the kitchen.
‘What do you mean, is that all?’
‘Why would you think such a thing about yourself?’
‘Don’t you ever think that your ideas are stupid?’
‘Never. I am telling you, it’s that fucking Anglo upbringing of yours. I am serious, Aggie, you think too much.’
‘I hate it when people say that.’
‘You have to learn how to stop,’ you said.
‘I want it to be good, that’s all. And …’ I paused. ‘Sometimes I am afraid that you are going to leave me,’ I said, changing the subject.
‘Oh, come on, don’t start that now. Do you want me to tell you everything is going to be fine? Well, I can’t. You’re not the only one afraid, Aggie. Some people have something really serious to be afraid of. You don’t know how lucky you are.’
I curled my body up in a foetal position. I wanted to hide from you but there was nowhere to go.
That weekend we borrowed a friend’s car and drove out of Athens, for my birthday. I was relieved that we would have some time away from everything and hoped we could finally talk about how awful the last few weeks had been.
You placed your hand on my thigh as you drove and I felt happier than I had felt in weeks. I put my feet up on the dashboard and stared out the window drinking in the olive-green, dusty landscape.
The night we finally broke up Carlos and Maria had been over for dinner. While you were cooking Maria and I sat outside on the balcony smoking.
‘How was your weekend away?’ Maria asked me.
‘It was great, Maz, things felt almost normal between us there.’
‘And did you discuss what you will do?’ Maria asked.
‘What do you mean?’
‘I mean, will you stay in Athens?
‘I don’t know…I haven’t really thought about it,’ I said, dying to change the subject. I hadn’t considered leaving for even a moment. I was determined to make Athens my home.
‘Carlos and I have decided to move to Berlin.’
‘You won’t believe this, but I am pregnant.’
I was devastated but trying hard to hide it.
‘Oh, that’s wonderful news! I know you both really wanted this. I am so happy for you.’
‘Are you crying?’
‘Jesus Christ, Maz, I am so sorry. I am really happy for you—it’s just that I don’t know what I’ll do without a friend like you here.’
After our friends left we had a terrible argument. You tried to tell me how to wash the plates, and I told you to stop being so controlling. You said I was impractical and hopeless, and I called you a mumma’s boy. From there things deteriorated. Eventually you took a long drag of your cigarette and said you regretted me moving in with you. If I am honest, I had known this was coming, I just didn’t want to admit it to myself. It’s strange because when I think back to that moment it feels very silent, but in reality, it couldn’t have been silent at all. You slept on the couch that night and the next morning while you were at work, I packed my things and left. I took a boat to Venice to put off leaving Europe. I wanted to surround myself with beauty while I grieved. I didn’t want to think too much about anything. I just wanted to immerse myself in the streets and museums of Venice, and to sleep. I wasn’t ready to think about what I would do next. I wasn’t even ready to tell any of my friends, let alone my family, what was happening.
Once I left Athens everything was fixed in my mind in terms of befores and afters. Everything became before or after Greece; before or after you. On one of those nights when we were still together and I believed there would be endless nights like it ahead, I was lying beside you, stroking your hair.
‘Tell me a story,’ you said.
‘What kind of story?’
‘Any, just pick one and tell it to me.’
‘How about a nursery rhyme?’ I asked.
‘A sailor went to sea, sea, sea, to see what he could see, see, see. But all that he could see, see, see was the bottom of the deep blue sea, sea, sea…’ I recited.
‘Is that it?’
‘Yup, that’s it.’
‘Tell it to me again?’ you asked.
Melody Ellis is a writer and academic. Her interdisciplinary writing practice includes fiction, narrative nonfiction and criticism. She is currently a Research Fellow in the School of Media and Communication at RMIT where she teaches literary studies.