When he first saw the couple, Marshall was leaning on a railing of the ferry boat and looking down onto the dock at Brindisi. The man was arguing with an official at the bottom of the gangplank, but the clatter of vans and cars driving up the nearby ramp blanked out his words. The woman stood very straight, nodding her head emphatically. Behind the couple other passengers were backed up into a line that spread into a fan. The official kept shrugging and spreading his hands, palms up, until the man began waving his tickets and jabbing at them with the forefinger of his other hand as if hoping to impale them.
Someone in the crowd shouted. The official stood on tiptoes and peered over the couple. Then he looked toward the sky, bunched his fingers, grabbed the man’s tickets, tore, and brusquely motioned them forward. As they passed up the gangplank beneath Marshall, he could hear the man’s voice, high and penetrating. The woman glanced up, and her eyes met Marshall’s, almost as if she were appealing for agreement.
His previous trips on boats had destroyed any illusions for Marshall that he might be a good sailor. Now he took dramamine, always at least an hour or two ahead of embarking. It relaxed him, and watching the couple he had been able to remain amused and aloof. Now he straightened up slowly, one hand still on the rail, and gazed toward the town and its rim of lights along the bay.
He was of medium height and stocky build, a man who had been obliged to fight all his life against a tendency to gain weight easily. In the ten years since his wife Winifred had died he had lost the battle. He was not obese, but his features were blurred, his belly pressed forward against the rail, and before leaving home he had needed to alter most of his summer clothes. He had been nearly bald for more than 20 years, but when he was slimmer that had not seemed to age him. Now he looked at least his 65 years, and he tended to walk slowly, hands behind his back, easing himself in and out of chairs as if his knees and hips were not accustomed to the new weight they carried.
Marshall strolled to the large room where passengers who had not bought cabin berths would sit and doze on the overnight passage to Corfu or Patras. He had already staked out his claim to one long seat by arranging his suitcases to look as if two persons would occupy the space. On the bench facing his were the man and woman he had observed.
They nodded to him as Marshall stepped carefully to take his seat by the window.
“Typical,” the man was saying. “I should have mistrusted the agent when I saw it was not an official office of GIT.”
“You should have. What if we’d been stuck here all night?”
“So, you buy the tickets next time. Anyway, I suppose the jerk at the gangplank would have done anything if I’d slipped him a thousand. It’s all fraud, fraud, fraud.”
He was a small man with peppered spikes of hair and wiry mustache. The deep circles under his eyes gave him a permanently weary expression, and the irritable, petulant tone of his voice added to the impression that he slept poorly. His companion was large-boned and taller, and despite the fact that her face was fleshy, it was mobile and expressive. At this moment it showed dour disapproval that reminded Marshall of a schoolteacher he had suffered under as a child who always accused him of mischief he had not done.
Marshall leaned into the window, cupping his hands to see out. The boat had left the dock, and the lights of the town were receding into the black heap of landscape.
“Oh, well. On to Greece,” the man was saying, and Marshall sensed the words were spoken loudly enough to include him.
“I gather you had a problem out there.”
The woman rolled her eyes back and waved a hand.
The man said, “Agent in Rome cheated us. We thought we were paying for a cabin. Wasn’t till we were on the train that we noticed he’d given us coach tickets. No way we could prove how much we’d really paid, of course.”
“They all do it,” she added. “They seem to find any little place where you might be off guard, and then your money’s gone.”
“Abel Dworkin.” He stuck out his hand. “And this is my wife Monica.”
“Marshall Littlefield. Have you been in Italy long?”
Two days later when he sat in his hotel room in Delphi Marshall found time to make some entries in his journal.
Pleasant enough on the surface but somehow bitter and vain underneath. Or perhaps insecure? Often testy with his wife, but she seemed used to it, maybe even needled him on purpose. I’ve never understood people like that, the way they need to rub each other the wrong way to be sure the other person is there. Always sensed he might be judging me harshly. A writer. Asked him titles of his books so I could look them up when home. He launched into a long explanation of how many stories and poems he’d written, but didn’t have any friends in high places. Lack of books seemed to be everyone else’s fault. She was looking at the dark window all this time. Heard it all often before? Her hand constantly tugged her skirt over her knees as if afraid it was riding up. I changed topic as soon as I could. Talked about how rough it could be between Brindisi and Corfu. They never asked about me.
Perhaps it was having that couple on the seat opposite me, or the simple fact that the trip to Greece was the most vivid part of our journey, but I spent much of the night recalling when I did this with Winnie. Remembered how I’d never felt so sick in my life. February, and very rough. After a while I couldn’t even make it to the rail. Just sat against the cabin wall on deck. Let the waves and rain soak me. Cold as hell.
Endless dry heaves. Thought at one time I’d just throw myself over. I was sure it would go on forever. Winnie helping me. Not sick at all. Then those three days we stopped over in. Corfu and I had a terrible cold. Exposure? Dear Winnie. On our way to Patras and when the ferry was passing Ithaca she said quite seriously, “That? That’s Ithaca? No wonder Odysseus avoided going home.”
Everyone looking haggard at dawn. Dworkin pretended to be reading a book but his eyes were not moving across the page. She stared out the window at the dawn, elbow propped on the windowsill, hand holding up her chin. She and I talked a bit. She started to tell me about the death of her mother the year before—how she had spent most of the winter in Massachusetts helping to care for her while Abel was in Duluth. Suddenly he spoke from behind his book.”No reason strangers would be interested in all that.” Her only response was to turn and stare at him, but he kept reading. Gave me an excuse to take a stroll on deck.
Very bracing wind but mild. I sensed Winnie somewhere to my right, slightly behind, like they say you still feel a limb after an amputation. I wonder if this trip is a wise thing to do. Decided I wouldn’t get off at Corfu.
Ship docking when I went back to my seat. She was peeling an orange. He sat with hands folded in his lap, head back. Told them I was staying on till Patras, had already been to Corfu some years ago. When they left, she waved from the doorway hesitantly, as if I might already have forgotten them. Very odd man. Glad not to be bumping into them on some little island like Corfu.
I need to buy a hat before Delphi.
He found a suitable imitation Panama with a wide, black band, and it amused him to see his jaunty reflection in storefront windows as he strolled along the docks before leaving for Delphi. There, in the evening he sat on the terrace of his small hotel, the setting sun in his face, the Bay of Corinth a sparkling sheet of water, and he sipped his glass of Ouzo. Some tree was flowering nearby, shocking in the intensity of its sweetness. The sun lowered to the point where he could stare at its rim, and the water faded from bronze to aquamarine and finally to a shimmering silver. The carefully spaced groves of olives in the plains below absorbed the last pale light and then turned black. That night he slept so deeply that he could not recall a single dream.
With guidebook in hand and a boxed lunch in the small pack he had brought for such occasions, he spent the day clambering in the ruins, pausing often in the shade of almond or wild fig to read entries in his overly-detailed guide. He ate sitting on a stone at one end of the stadium, uncorking the half-bottle of retsinated wine he had bought in Itea, watching the busloads of tourists be hustled through.
Climbed as high as I could on the lower slopes of Parnassus after lunch. Dry, gorse, loose stones, my ticker telling me to slow down from time to time. Topped a small ridge and could see an upper slope. Thought it was white rock, but binoculars told me it was snow. Wonder if it stays all summer?
Sat for an hour there. Amazing view of Bay, ruins below. Read about how they used to hurl the sacrilegious from the east rock face. Actually felt queasy for a few minutes. Had that feeling you get in a high tower or on the edge of a cliff when your mind suddenly thinks of jumping or being pushed. Could see a small figure (me?) tumbling past the jags and ravines. Watched the eagles rising in slow wide circles.
Walked down. Not slowly enough. Turned my ankle just above the theater. OK, but will be sore for some days. Suspect Dr. Simpson is right. I’ve put on a bit too much weight lately. Made a vow before dinner to try to lose a few pounds. But lovely pastries with fig filling did in my resolve.
Dreamed last night of being flung from great heights, praying to sprout wings like the eagles. Do I accuse myself of betraying our memories, our past, by being in Greece alone? Since we never went to Delphi, I did not expect any tensions here, but there is no way to avoid a simple loneliness as when I woke in the middle of the night. Coming to a new place like
this might be harder than Corfu. Know how much she would have loved Delphi—the regret complicated—not just that she isn’t here, but that we had not included it in our trip when she could have been. Not grief through memory but greed for the future we lost when she died.
Athens. Thursday. Should have known it would happen, of course. Two things you can always expect when traveling in Europe. Bound to run into an acquaintance from home, and if you’ve chatted with someone earlier in the trip, you’ll meet again later. I was in one of those shops just below the entrance to the Acropolis, trying to decide which kind of worry beads I wanted to buy.
“The green ones,” a voice by my shoulder said.
Monica Dworkin. Her husband was at the counter haggling over a small marble replica of the Parthenon. Evidently he had not seen me yet. I should have recognized his sharp voice, though, which had been jabbing at my consciousness for a few minutes.
He joined us. “I hate this junk, but the kids will expect me to bring something home.”
He held up the plastic bag, probably carrying a few Parthenons. Looked almost annoyed to have been discovered being a typical tourist.
“These.” 1 selected the green ones.
“Well, this is where we part,” Abel said.
Thought he had to be talking to me. I started to say goodbye again when I saw he was talking to his wife.
“That place in the Plaka, At one?” she said.
“I’ve seen the Acropolis too many times,” he said to me as if I had asked him for justification.
She and I decided to go together. She had never been there. Abel, she explained as we strolled up the ramps and broken steps, had an appointment to meet with some famous elderly Greek poet. Not his first visit to Greece, as I might have gathered from his casual relationship to the ruins. He had lived in Athens for half a year before she knew him.
How many children? I asked. Two, but neither were hers. She’s his third wife.
“I think I could find my way around here blindfolded,” she said.”I’ve even had dreams take place here. I studied it for years.”
They chatted for the first time as friendly strangers might, she talking about her attempt to finish a Ph. D.in Art History, he about his years as a teacher of American History before retiring. When they stood before the last stretch of uneven stones, the columns and architrave looming above them into a pale blue sky enameled under a layer of mother-of-pearl, she tried to say something, but her voice was choked.
“Sorry. It’s just too beautiful.”
He almost put an arm around her shoulder, pulling her close as he imagined he would if she were his middle-aged daughter.
“Let’s sit a moment.” He guided her to a block of tilted marble.
They faced the oblique view of the Parthenon and city below strewn to the horizon. She remained silent for a while, drawing her feet up onto the stone, tucking her wide skirt around her. She leaned her chin on her knees. Marshall pretended to be consulting his guidebook, but he did not focus on the words.
They were suddenly surrounded by a group of teen-aged boys and girls jabbering in some Scandinavian tongue, paying no attention to a thin man with thick-lensed glasses who was speaking at the top of his voice and sweeping his hand back and forth as if trying to polish a distant lintel of the temple. A girl in green smock stumbled into Marshall, said some syllables that must have been asking pardon, and then hunched her shoulders and giggled into her hand when the girls around her laughed. Their leader strode on, beckoning the herd to follow.
Monica shook her head. “I suppose if a child is yours, you see her differently. One parent’s darling is a stranger’s brat. I think about that because of Abel’s children. I do like ‘them but I’m glad they aren’t mine. I would have been a very possessive mother. Do you have any?”
“We wanted them. It just never happened.”
“I don’t think Abel would even if I wanted. He says he can’t stand a child’s first four or five years. But I’m not sure how much of his kids he really saw at those ages anyway.”
Marshall began to say something about his sister’s children, but the words stuck. He did not want to continue a casual conversation about children, but the shift in his mood puzzled him.
“I’ll be late for lunch.” She was looking at her watch. “I’d suggest we meet for dinner tonight, but—”
“I shouldn’t anyway. I’ve bought a ticket for a tour of the Kyclades. Boat leaves early in the morning, I’m afraid.”
“Then it isn’t goodbye at all.”
She nodded, laughing. “Are you following us?”
When she left, she walked quickly across the stones and around the groups, her long skirt swaying and rippling like the draped folds of a dancing.maenad. He turned and walked slowly around the Parthenon but he was not really seeing the structure. He was tired, even depressed. Why did she and Abel have that effect on him? He thought of canceling his trip. He stood for a while on the edge of the Acropolis staring across the haze and smog of the city. Ridiculous. Other people would be on the boat. He had loved those islands the first time. Just tired, hungry. Tourist’s malaise. He decided to have something to eat and then go back to his hotel for a nap.
Chartres. That’s where it was. Cloudy day, but still the windows were glowing, colors dark but rich, Winnie sat on a bench, I kept wandering, peering into the chapels. Remember coming back to Winnie from the other direction, her back to me. At first didn’t recognize her, thought she was someone worshipping, head bowed, shoulders moving slightly as if she might be telling her beads. Reached her, saw she was weeping, stifling the sounds. Just stood there for a few moments utterly shocked. Couldn’t understand why. She saw me and stopped crying. I sat beside her, kept saying, “What’s the matter?” She only shook her head. Finally she said it was because the place was so beautiful she was overcome, but she was looking away from me. She wouldn’t say more. I did not believe her.
I remember thinking that night when I heard her sleeping beside me that I hardly knew her after all the years. And me. Did she know me? Everything fine the next day. We talked about how disorienting it is to be in unfamiliar places. Knew we were just patching it over. Until Monica this morning, I hadn’t thought of that for years, especially how I finally doped out what had been troubling her, what it meant for her that her period had begun. George Schattner once said casually to me that he did not think a couple ever really knew each other until they had children. Then he was embarrassed and apologized to me as if afraid I thought he was lording it over me. So much for the Parthenon. What a crooked thing the mind is.
“Strabo the historian says that there were so many bald men on this island that “Mykonian” became synonymous with baldness,” Abel said as he separated the flesh of his snapper from its fine bones in the restaurant on Mykonos where the three of them went the first evening of their trip.
“Then I claim citizenship.” Marshall swiped his hand across the top of his head.
Abel was frowning as he tended to when pursuing a topic. “Interesting example of a genetic pool, I suspect. Isolated population, gradually increasing prevalence of the gene for baldness.”
“You said you’ve been here before?” Monica asked. She had ordered shrimp, but agreed to share with Marshall if he ordered squid since neither of them wanted to take the risk alone.
“The same trip I mentioned earlier. I thought I’d recall some things more quickly, but it’s all coming in a very spotty way. I do remember Delos well.”
She reached her fork to jab at a tentacle. “You’re not having enough shrimp. Please.”
“Memory,” Abel said, refilling all their glasses with the white Demestica, “is never at one’s command. At least the area of memory I suspect you are hoping for.”
“Oh, I’m not sure I’m exactly hoping.”
But Abel did not seem to hear. “Recall is more likely when it concerns dates, names, factual material—if you’ve a propensity for that. Sensuous memory, that seems to be triggered more unconsciously. They often don’t mix well. But you’re an historian. I’m sure you know what I’m talking about.”
“I think they’re rather closely connected.”
Abel paused to work a small bone to the front of his mouth, nip it between his teeth, and extract it with his fingers. He waved a fork.
“Mmm, mmm. Take my father. He was a professor too.”
“Classics. Greek. Hellenistic period, mostly. Interested in what happened to the outposts of Alexander’s conquests. But anyway, he had one of those minds perfectly adjusted to the field, or a mind that was fortunate enough to find its right field. Never forgot names, dates. Could recite poems he’d learned in grade school 50 years earlier. Daunted me entirely.” He lifted his glass, took a large quaff of the wine, swallowed quickly in his urgency to keep talking. His eyes were looking between Monica and Marshall as if his father were hovering in that middle distance.”What I came to see in my twenties was that actually if I’d had that kind of memory, I’d never get a damn thing written. You see, I forget everything.”
Monica laughed. “It’s true.”
He frowned as if she had been the one to say it and had meant it critically.”I say it’s really all there, all I’ve lived, just as much for me as for my father. But my facts are usable, not tied down to time and space in literal ways that would make it impossible for me to transform them without feeling some guilt. Seems to me my father was burdened. He could never make a story out of what he knew. When I was younger and would show him something coming out of personal experience, he’d say, “But look, your Uncle Morris wasn’t even married then.” Made me angry. It was the story I cared about, not what had “really” happened. Lying was never a problem for me.”
His eyes snapped into place on Marshall, he waited a second, then returned his concentration to the waiting fish.
“I agree with Marshall. Most of us,” Monica said, leaning to refill her own glass and pour some for Marshall too since Abel’s latest trip to the bottle had included only himself, “just live in a confusion of both memories—getting all tangled up with what’s true, what’s a lie.”
Abel shrugged impatiently, placing his knife and fork over the last shreds of fish to indicate he had finished.”I didn’t mean that, of course. We all do that. Another bottle, please.”
The waiter grabbed the empty bottle by its neck. Dessert followed, some pastries that Abel found too sweet for his taste. He pushed aside his plate and concentrated on the wine. Marshall found his attention wandering as Abel’s monologue continued, something about the nature of language and burden of its past that he had been discussing with the Greek poet in Athens.
Together they strolled back to the dock where the boat was moored, but just as they were about to walk up the awninged gangplank, Abel stopped.
“I’m going to walk off my fidgets. Not sleepy. You coming?”
Monica shook her head. She had walked beside him till then, one hand on his elbow almost as if guiding a blind man. She let go. Abel strode away, turning along the harbor sea wall.
In his cabin Marshall washed his face in the tepid water, took off his clothes, and stood naked for a few minutes in the dark, gazing through a small porthole toward the open sea. The mild breeze, salty and flavored by a backdraft from land with some kitchen’s charcoal, cooled his face and the hand he rested near the opening. For a moment he was a small boy who had dreamed he would one day stand at the porthole of a pirate ship watching an island filled with treasure rising from the sea. He decided Abel knew nothing about memory at all. His rants were either mere self-justification or he was too young.
The day began as a bright, choppy morning, the boat at dock even tugging and bumping a bit at its moorings. Were warned that we might not be able to make the crossing to Delos in the launches if it kept up. But things had calmed a little by nine, and off we went, although the spray when we were broadside to the wind did wet all of us down some.
I couldn’t keep up with the group on the island. The guide, our Mrs. Stavropoulos from the boat, flitted ahead of us like a wren, and everyone else seemed willing to try to keep up with her. Irritates me that I seem to be the oldest one here. I can’t get acquainted with the others, so I’m constantly thrown back on the Dworkins.
The knee was bothering me again. No trouble with it since last winter, and I’d thought maybe it was only a cold weather malady, but it gave a twinge as we started up the first level, and I decided to sit a while as the group went on. Monica came back briefly, wondered if I was all right. Told her most certainly yes, just wanted to take my own time looking at things. They were out of sight soon, and when I did start on again, I must have taken a different turn, because soon I was rising beyond the major ruins, up higher onto the slope. Wanted that, though. When I turned and sat down again, I could see them, small bodies straggling along through the boxes of some walls and columns.
“The breast of the sea,” the Greeks called it, I suppose because the island rises out of the sea like the breast of a woman lying down, the rest of her just under the water. I could see back to Mykonos, over to the small island of Rheneia. I slowly began to have the sense that someone was sitting beside me. I even felt a slight pressure along my arm and hip as if a person were leaning or had touched me in shifting position. I did not say her name. I thought it. Then it was gone and I was embarrassed, as if I had been overheard by someone when I called out in a dream. I actually checked my pulse, wondered if I had suffered a small stroke. Nothing. I could see the group was not coming so high, and I walked down to join them.
I came around a broken wall to find Abel and Monica alone and leaning at each other in mid-argument—not the shouting kind, but when two people stand close as if one of them has just drawn a line in the sand that they are staring across—fists clenched and necks straining, whatever words getting out of the tight throat sounding more like guttural moans. In fact before I saw them, when the wall was still between us, I thought some couple was making love. I have no idea what it was all about. I tried to retreat, but my foot scraped on the loose gravel. They looked over. Her face pale and expressionless, his lips drawn back.
“Oh, hell,” he said when he saw me, then strode by, spitting out, “can’t you leave us alone even for a minute?”
She stared at his retreating figure, and her voice did not tremble when she said, “I’m sorry. He didn’t mean that. When Abel’s angry he flails.” Her eyes were half-lidded, as if she had just waked up.
“I understand.” I started to leave.
“Wait. Let’s walk down together.”
I was trapped again. Didn’t want her to feel I was hurt by the weird man’s outburst, but I certainly wanted to be elsewhere. Unfortunately we had plenty of time. We were not due to take the boat back to Mykonos for a few hours.
ij”Yow mustn’t take his moods seriously. He’s such a child. It may seem a little odd after what just happened, but we were about to go looking for you. Abel’s hired a caique for the afternoon. He wants to cross over to Rheneia, that larger island over there. Says he’s seen all he wants of Delos before. Would you like to join us?”
I looked to see how genuine all that was. Thought she might be trying to patch up after what Abel had said. Part of me wanted to say, “Not if you’re sick of me. ” I hadn’t asked to be thrown with them so often. I was wondering if she had begun to include me out of pity—the lonely old man, should help him along, etc. But I began to feel a little stubborn, even perverse.
We strolled down slowly.
“I don’t want you to think our arguments are because I’m about to become another former Mrs. Dworkin. We argue a lot.”
“Angry?” was all 1 could think to say.
“Abel’s always angry these days. Sometimes at me. Edgy even when he’s not. I was hoping the trip would help. His work just hasn’t gone well lately.”
“I gather the trip isn’t helping.”
But she seemed to understand me, and in a quite distant tone she said, “I don’t really need any help.”
Didn’t want to hear more anyway. Am I getting too old to want to be bothered with other people’s troubles? I don’t know why I could not sympathize with her even though I am beginning to dislike Abel immensely. It’s hard to see her as a victim when she seems so thoroughly under her own control.
Abel sat facing Monica and me in the small boat. I thought he was going to ignore the whole scene the three of us had been through in the ruins. But he leaned at me, tapped me on the knee, and said something that began with “Sorry about” and was torn into nonsense syllables by a rise in the engine’s rattle. I nodded as if to a deaf mute, mouthing, “All right, perfectly all right.” They ate their lunches as we crossed. I had forgotten mine but was not hungry anyway.
Rheneia. A very small dock, no other boats tied up, a desolate shore and landscape with little indication of ruins. As we walked along the shore, Abel explained: place where the Athenians had exiled the pregnant and aged citizens of Delos when they seized it and decided no one should live on the island because it was too sacred. After we had trudged along a treacherously uneven path, we came to ruins of houses for the women and midwives clustered near circular tombs of a necropolis.
He began reciting in Greek in a mock-serious tone, flailing a stiff arm with histrionic gestures. Monica fanning herself with her hat. I stood close to her to pick up some breeze, afraid to take my own hat off. The heat pressed down flat as a palm in the limestone depression. Then I heard my own voice at a great distance saying very matter-of-factly, “Feeling sort of faint, I think.”
I found myself stretched out in a cleft where the breeze was coming in off the sea. Alone. Utterly disoriented. No question I was awake, but might as well have been dreaming. Had no idea where I was—for a few seconds? minutes?—some timeless interval that at first had no panic in it because my life was suspended. My hat and glasses were in my lap, I was propped in an angle so that I could not slip to right or left, and what I saw was the distant merging of various blues—ocean, sky, even some scattered islands tinted blue.
All of it, the landscape, the eyes I looked through, the heart I began to feel surging with slow regularity in the arteries of my neck, the breeze that made small hisses in the rocks as if paper were being shredded, was Winnie’s presence. She was everywhere. Then I began to find myself again in a place of mere sea and rocks, playing out the comedy of an old man’s inability to take the heat.
Abel came into my alcove but I did not move. I may have been whispering the word “Winnie, ’ but perhaps that was an echo in my head. I must have looked in dire condition—eyes wide open, probably unblinking, body lax. For the first time since I had known him, the mask-like quality of Abel’s face was not there, no defensive pose of irony or indignation. He knelt toward me. I tried to sit up but he pressed a hand on my shoulder and kept me down. Already I had begun to feel better, but embarrassed.
His voice was quiet and uncertain. “I was afraid. It was like my father, his first stroke.”
“No, no. Just the heat. I shouldn’t have skipped lunch.”
I wish I had been more accepting of his concern. But this unexpected intimacy of expression from him aroused my own reticence. His mouth pursed, eyes narrowed slightly into his more habitual expression.
“True. We’re into the heat of the day. Monica’s gone down to the boat to get some water, a cloth.”
She came around the jutting rock bearing a bottle and Abel’s handkerchief soaked with sea water. I drank the tepid juice left over from their lunch. Monica knelt and began to swab my brow but I took over.
“I’m not a lightweight. Hope you didn’t have to lug the guts far. I don’t recall a thing.”
Abel was looking nervously at his watch as I stood. My head was perfectly clear, and standing in the stiffening breeze brought me around completely. When we reached the dock on Delos, the others were all waiting for us. Stav circled us like a sheepdog, barking us into the boats. I did not see either of them later since 1 went to my cabin and did not come up for dinner. Tired, but with that weariness that will not allow easy sleep, and I kept entering a half waking state most of the night, floating in the jetsam of that confused day. Boats, ruins, a couple in clenched debate, and a landscape that was not rock and sea and sky but my woman, my love. I hope I am not losing my mind.
Sailed from Mykonos into a storm. Steady but violent winds, unusual for this time of year, they say. Nothing visible from the windows or porthole of my cabin but shades of gray—water and sky indistinguishable but for the white spray and foam along the crests of waves. Very few people on their feet by lunch, even some of the waiters looking queasy. Luckily my dramamine took hold. Captain made the rounds of the tables chatting with the few of us who ate. He invited me up to the bridge to have some coffee with him and see the storm from a different perspective. We sat looking through the wide window toward the prow. Wind-driven water from sky and sea, momentary rifts that showed the racked, flung clouds. I felt as if we were traveling through the full cascade of a huge waterfall.
At one point he said, “Paros. There. When the clouds break again.”
The first glimpse was a vague shape I would never have thought to be land. A grayish hump like cloud and water. Then a wide rift opened and the island was very clear, even some clusters of houses distinguishable from the rock and patches of gorse. Quickly gone. Did not reappear. That was Paros.
Dark came sooner than usual. Tried to read. Undressed, turned out the lights, and lay on my bunk listening to the clangs and tremors of metal, the nagging complaint of the propeller meeting varied resistances. No sleep waiting for me. Rose to sit at the small writing table, and this.
I know it was the worst argument we had on the trip. But I can’t even begin to remember what it was about. Probably that’s why it was so bad. Must have been one of those disagreements over something small that deepens and gathers fury because it is only the mechanism to release stored up differences between two lives. I can see the restaurant close to the harbor in the town of Paros. Brightly white-washed exterior, inside also white with blue-tiled floor. I remember wondering if we would finish the dinner without making a public scene. Some self-justifying anger was high in me, a voice saying, “It’s about time you put your foot down and made it clear this sort of behavior will not be accepted.”
How goading Winnie could be when angry—those lips becoming drawn and prim, the eyes never looking at mine, skin stretched tight across the brow as if someone were pulling her hair from behind. Always made me want to grab her head in both hands, hold it tightly, make her look directly at me—like I think I would have treated a child.
Made it through dinner. We were walking back to the hotel when the whole harbor went dark. Bright stars and a moon rising, but the town, docks, streetlamps extinguished. A few voices yelled out. Then flickerings of candles appeared, the wandering fireflies of flashlights. We made it back to the hotel, were given two candles in sconces and some matches.
We would have enjoyed all that if we had not already fallen into our separate pits. I think that made me even angrier or at least more petulant, as if the fact that she was ruining a possible pleasure through her stubbornness justified my cause even more fully. I vowed to say nothing unless she did. We undressed in silence, lay down in silence, stayed as close as possible to our respective edges of the bed, and sent no messages to the enemy.
In the middle of the night power was restored and all the lights in the room, left on when we went to dinner, flared, startling both of us out of sleep. We rose blinking, collided while groping to turn off the glare like insects scrambling when a stone is turned over, looked at each other before the dark was re-established as if the evening had been a bad dream, then let it become reality again as we went back to our separate portions of the bed. All done in pantomime.
I remember the knocking on our door, the usual tray of breads and thick coffee and a chunk offeta, bright sun and a spritzy ocean breeze washing over us when I swung back the latticed blinds. We said only enough to each other to be certain we were going to stay with our plan—a trip into the hills to visit some of the ancient marble quarries. She showered and dressed and combed her hair. I shaved and showered and dressed. Like hieratic statues of a pharaoh and his wife, we strode side by side, fists clenched.
We were in a small bus with some other tourists. We wound up into hills, through sparse patches of green, some very bony sheep. In the quarries Winnie and I stood on opposite sides of the little group whenever we could. We spoke to our companions as amiably as possible to prove to each other that the argument was not really getting to us, thank you.
The end was so simple. We were squeezing through a small doorway to exit from one of the quarries. Our hips touched. Then our hands. We passed into the glare of sunlight, facing the path to the next cavern. She turned away from the group, along a rut to the left that climbed through some abandoned chunks toward a green cleft. Her hand did not let go, pulling me with her.
The path and its cleft twisted, opened out into a small plateau with some bushes, a stunted fig tree—God knows how ancient—and a view from its far edge down the rocky steps of hillside to the glitter of sea and Naoussa’s harbor.
She turned so suddenly to burrow her face against my chest that the wind was knocked out of me. I flinched. Her shoulders were shaking. She was laughing at our usual awkwardness—both of us so damned ungainly that we often bumped in the night and made unintentional bruises.
She moved us toward the fig tree and its circle of shade. We sat down. We had never made love in the open air. We did not then, but almost did. Oh, Winnie. Those broken stems of wild thyme I still found tangled in your hair that night in our room —the wide splotches of shade from the fig leaves on the ground around us, your breath against my neck.
They were all waiting in the bus, hot and angry with us. We smiled and told them about the lovely view. If there is a judgment day and resurrection, I’ll hope for a forgiving decision on a life of sins more to be described as ones of omission than commission, but I already know what the resurrection will be like. I have been there. There can be no better—a cool breeze slipping through the window of a clattering bus, the sea rising slowly toward us, her thigh against mine, head resting on my shoulder.
Now I will try sleep again, if only to see if I have succeeded in teaching my dreams where to go.
ijHe woke to a world of bright sun, calm sea, and the circlet of Thira’s lagoon. The first impression was so buoyantly magical that Marshall did not even pause to shave but dressed and walked up to the deck to lean and gaze down into the layers of blue isinglass or out to the steep cliffs and town perched above them.
Because this would be the longest stopover, the passengers were all staying in a hotel, but he decided to see if he could cut himself free of the Dworkins for the next days. He was weary of being berated by Abel, and he had begun to find that to be near Monica was inevitably to worry about her emotional state. Her cool silences were draining, perhaps even more demanding than Abel’s abrasiveness since at least the man could be dismissed as a crank when he ranted.
He dragged his baggage to the hotel’s van and bought his ticket for the trip by donkey. He concentrated on adjusting his body to the motions of the beast whose legs seemed mismatched—nothing else could explain the way that he was jostled up and down and sideways at each step the donkey took on the loosely graveled path. Slowly the sea and harbor fell away from him, the sky fanned out in limitless blues, and the glare of white-wash from walls and domes below made him shield his eyes with one hand. The higher they rose, the more he was drawn to look down. The old volcano’s crater, long filled with water to form the lagoon, gave such a concentric clarity to the view that the downward pull toward some core made him lean away, into the wall of rock.
He took no tours that day and avoided the hotel as much as possible. He wanted to be alone with the town and its busy people, to wander the small streets, in and out of shops and churches, never quite focusing on wall or window or alleyway as if by blurring his vision he would enter the source of light. Objects seemed to have been constructed simply to display the light in all its levels of intensity—from flat and blinding white to a dying, purplish tint in the twist of some long corridor. And Marshall never lost the slight tension in his calves and thighs as if he were walking a narrow ridge between two immense pits, even though at times he could not see the ocean or any edge.
He found it hard to believe that this was the light arriving on his earth from the same sun he knew elsewhere. It emanated from below and from all sides, was trapped and glowing in the air itself, or passed through everything it touched to glow from the other side. He wondered if the light could be the long, unfading afterglow of that huge explosion of the volcano. Perhaps what he saw was the melding of two violent and molten sources—the sun and the earth’s core.
By late afternoon he was exhausted. He looked about him in a small square and found a stone bench tucked against a shadowed wall. He leaned his head and shoulders back and closed his eyes. His pulse was racing as if he had been swimming underwater and had just broken to the surface. He breathed deeply. His heartbeat slowed. Sounds of children kicking a ball on the other side of the square returned to him, some women gabbling brightly as they walked by. A breeze played about his ankles but reached no higher as if his feet were resting in the current of a passing brook.
Would this island also have a special darkness? When light left Thira would the air be like the center of congealed lava or layers of pumice and ash? Marshall placed his palms flat on the bench on each side of him. His eyelids were translucent and veined with scarlet threads. He was light and giddy and floating. He whispered his own name slowly. Then Winnie’s. They were only syllables, and he was reminded of his childhood when he could not sleep but wanted to, and he would take any word that entered his mind and say it over and over again until it became the broken syllables of some ancient language that had no key. He would sink to sleep in a world that had become nonsense.
He opened his eyes. The children were still kicking up spurts of dust when they missed the ball, a man was leading a weary donkey loaded with sacks. The shadows were lengthening. The ball with its black and white checks rolled into the middle of the square, slowed, stopped. For a moment no one came to retrieve it.
The ball sat on the dividing line of shade and open sunlight. For the first time all day the walls and cobblestones and window frames and nearby tower were solid and fixed, congealed from a background of light. Those two worlds came together for him—the flowing, insubstantial light, the fixed and unyielding matter in that stream—and he was at peace.
At dinner I saw Monica and Abel a few tables away—they had been concealed by another party near me. She must have been waiting to catch my glance. She smiled—that somewhat tired or maybe only hooded expression—then waved her fingers at me. Abel frowned as he cracked the claw of a lobster, his neck bibbed. Then he waved the claw, his face breaking into his usual contradictory scowl and quick smile. I waved and returned to my lemon soup.
They finished first and paused at my table on their way out. Abel had not managed to protect himself despite the bib, and his shirt front was spattered with drippings of butter. He was picking at his teeth with a toothpick. Had I enjoyed my day, Monica asked me? I was so eager to keep our meeting brief that I said as little as possible.
My day’s exertions, the half bottle of wine with dinner, the comforting sense that the journey was only a few days away from ending made me so drowsy that I barely had time to undress, turn out the lights, and admire the night sky. I vowed to save enough energy the next day to take a stroll after dinner. Even from my tiny balcony 1 could see how the constellations were barely traceable because of the massed layers of stars. I left the windows open to a very gentle sea breeze and distant rumors of the port far below.
But I woke to grunts, words not clear, and a pounding as if someone was being repeatedly thrown against my door. I opened it and Monica nearly fell against me, would have except Abel had the front of her blouse clutched in his fist.
“You bitch,” he was hissing at her.
A number of other doors along the corridor were opened, faces peering out. I found myself staring over her shoulder and directly into Abel’s snarl. But he did not seem to recognize me, and not once in the incident that followed did they say anything to me. They were totally absorbed in each other.
She lifted her knee hard. Abel’s face paled and contorted, but he did not let go. He lashed out with the back of his other hand and struck her full across the face. Her head was thrown hard against me, and I tasted blood on my lips.
“Stop this,” I yetted.
She tried to knee him again, then managed to rake one hand across his cheek. When he swung, she ducked, and this time his hand caught me across the temple. I staggered back. She tore herself loose, her blouse ripped open, breasts bared since she had been wearing nothing beneath it. They stood panting, slightly stooped, like wrestlers about to leap into a new hold. Someone down the corridor was yelling, “Police, police.”
The blow had dizzied me, and my own breath was coming too short to let me say anything. Abie’s lips were drawn back, and he blinked against the sweat in his eyes. His cheek was bleeding where she had raked him.
Would they have gone back to their brawling? For the few seconds left I thought they were on the verge of falling together into an embrace. Her eyes were wide, mouth slightly open—a look of ecstasy that I’ve seen on statues of dancing maenads. His arms were lifting from his sides as if to reach for her. But the police arrived, grabbed them, hustled them off to the office below. Of course, an officer came from room to room asking us for details, but I’m not sure he understood English well enough to follow my ramble, and he seemed to be performing a mere duty in the most perfunctory manner. His demeanor expressed a mild contempt for all foreigners, as if I too might be capable of doing something equally inconvenient. But he was helpful in arranging medical assistance for the cut on my lip.
I have no idea what happened to the Dworkins. I am sure they were only slapped on the wrist and told to behave themselves. Perhaps because they had not spoken to me during it, the scene in the corridor is a dream fragment for me, one of those dreams in which we create an image for the nature of a whole relationship.
But I had no desire to know more about their lives in any way. In fact, I found them so repugnant that I arranged to charter a flight back to Athens in a small plane. The idea of being cooped up on a boat with them on the return trip, of having to eat in the same hall, even pass them on deck, was so disagreeable that I would have stayed on Thira and waited for the next boat if necessary.
Am finishing off this journal at home now. Despite its unfortunate conclusion, the trip left me with some interesting matters of history and culture to pursue. The study of Greece and Greek Art has become a pleasant hobby. But a peculiar simplification has also occurred in memory. I hold two places in mind.
One is the view from my window that I woke to on the flight home. I lift the shade and am momentarily blinded by a dazzling but cold sky. The air makes a steely hiss around me. I look down on the surface of my planet where a long spit of land is thrust into a sea that is almost black. It is a place that belies its name. Greenland. The indifferent ice sheds a hard glare of light. This is no place to live.
And there is also a space where Winnie and I can sit—a square on an island filled with light. We are there.