There would be nothing special about the story I tell had it not been for the hospitality extended to me. Fifteen years ago, I was in a relationship which hurt me terribly; after which I decided to live a “virginal life” devoted entirely to my writing. I no longer believed in romantic love- the sharing of an existence.
Although it happened a long time ago, the idea of writing the story about this hospitality became persistent.
In brief, my old love came from an island widely regarded as glorious. For me a mainlander, the island was out of a fairy-tale.
In the tenth year of our relationship, my lover dared to propose I spend a few days of summer with him on the island- as friends, of course, and in separate places: he in his house and I in a nearby hotel. “I can’t let people think I have a girlfriend without being married.” he had said sternly. So, in town, we took precautions. He would sit in the back seat while I drove my car; I would visit his house in the dead of night when the whole world was asleep; but on the deserted beaches, we swam, caressed each other and behaved like a regular couple.
Why, I- an idiot- accepted his rigid terms, is a matter left for a psychiatrist. It’s just that at that time, I was so moved that he wanted to spend a part of his summer vacation with me.
The next year, however, he became difficult again and refused my plea to go back to his island. “That’s enough- you’ve seen it all.” he said severely.
I don’t want to go on about it. Two years later, bending perhaps at my persistence, he “declared” with condescension, “Come if that’s what you want…” he said. In this way, he freed himself of all responsibility.
Of course I wanted to go! The island for me was a “Paradise Lost.” Once more, I was received on his own terms. If it were unavoidable, I would be introduced as a lady friend who liked the island and was there for a few days. Being a gentleman, he accompanied me to the beach at high noon while I drove in the scorching heat. At late lunches, he would talk about whatever he wanted or fall silent with such a wretched expression, you would think I had killed his father; and other small, tiresome details besides completely opposite to my way of being.
We fought often as I reacted to the conditions he imposed while he would jeer, “You wanted to come, nobody invited you…”
And, again, fool that I was, I did not realize that my being there was my own choice and at my own expense. The meals he insisted on treating me to, I paid back by being his taxi driver. And so it was.
Sometimes, when I had had it, I would rush to the ferry office to get a ticket back, but my car was the problem. There was no room on the boat for it, or the tickets were all sold out. I would go back sadly to the hotel.
But of course, there were many beautiful moments: the sea, the deserted beaches; his words; his genuine expression of joy that I was with him. Always in our hours alone together, he was superb- another man who allowed the golden light of his soul to shine. Maybe that was what kept me near him for so many years: my love for the “other man” whom he repressed and hid under a mask sculpted from childhood, as well as my tenacity in drawing this other man to the surface as much as I could. My love for him had grown into an obsession to last a life time. Let it be … I go on again.
I don’t remember when the last summer was that I went back to the island. I think it was three years before I ended the hurtful relationship, (I say, three, ten, fifteen years so easily, as if I were counting beans. I am like that, quick in emotional decisions- every ten years and a step).
Fifteen years after we broke up, we remained good friends – the kind who stay in touch on the phone but rarely see each other, because he had returned to his island. His wish, like a Delphic divination was strangely fulfilled. In the years of our love, he had said how if he retired he would go back to his island and live alone in his father’s house. I was not included in his dreams; I had looked at him feeling sad and stupid.
He retired and went back to his island and because of a physical disability, instead of a loving someone to take care of him, the unfortunate man employed a kind-hearted, honest foreigner, who by chance, had the same name as mine.
As the years passed, we forgot we had been in love; we never spoke about it. We behaved as if we had always just been friends.
Last summer, I got a call from him, practically begging me to take care of my health because I was often fatigued from my writing. He proposed I come to his island. He would host me, not of course in his house which was small and untidy, but in a beautiful hotel- the most beautiful one on the island. In this way he wanted to fulfill a desire I had forgotten: to stay and rest as much time as I wanted in a hotel room with a view of the ocean.
I did not catch the beseeching in his tone.
“Next year,” I said.
“I may not be here next year.”
My attitude in life is to never refuse well-intentioned gifts; besides, I wanted to honor his offer, though I feared the uncertainty of our future.
When I packed my bag, I took Herman Melville’s Moby Dick, or the Whale, with me because the idea stuck in my head that the book should be read with a view of the sea.
At the island airport, they were waiting for me – the girl with my name ran and embraced me. “If you knew how much he has waited for you …” she whispered in my ear.
When I saw him, I was moved. His face was red with the joy of expectation. He could not run, as had done in the past, flying with an imaginary sandal like the mythical Hermes. Now he leaned upon a metal cane as he walked. Like me, my former love had changed and grown heavy. We were both middle-aged; the slender, youthful figures had faded leaving in their place, extra pounds, sparse, white hair, dull skin and a glum expression.
Really, the room at the hotel with a view of the ocean was lovely. On the little table, there was a flower bouquet. “He picked the flowers for you from different gardens.” the girl said.
I looked in his eyes, like mine on the verge of tears. His offering which in the past had taken me to heaven, was now a beautiful bouquet adorning a tombstone. The gesture, unusual for him, made me cherish even a ruin of the present.
As soon as I left my bag in the room, the first thing I wanted to do was visit the old places I had been to over so many summers. They followed me happily, he moved slowly with his cane while the girl recounted their news in a loud voice.
We went to the old hotel; that too had changed. Under new management, the beautiful building was now a sprawling structure with countless rooms and a brightly lit lobby. I saw no one I recognized; bewildered, I looked wildly for traces of the past. We went to the adjacent wing, “My room was there,” I said to the girl. “The church across the way is just as it was back then when the bells would ring to wake me if the sound of a ship entering the port had not already done so.”
I took them to the square and found myself murmuring repeatedly, “That has changed; they ruined this.” The square I remembered was now filled with fast-food and pastry shops. The road- the cobblestoned road- where once you could find gifts handmade by local artists as charming souvenirs of the island was now transformed into a crass, commercial street repeated in all the Greek islands where stores were filled with machine-made products of poor workmanship, -everything kitsch-indistinguishable from the other and everywhere the same.
The island I had known and loved was gone. It was now something unremarkable filled with tourists and alien immigrants. I looked at the girl who took care of him and was filled with affection- she is ours, I thought, not a “foreigner”.
I went back early to the hotel to rest and read. I would stay six days and my ambition was to finish “Moby Dick”. I made a bet with myself to do so and caressed the book of 910 pages.
I plunged into reading. God in the form of a whale had swallowed Jonah, as Father Mapple proclaimed in his sermon on the ship. Jonah, fleeing from God, foundered in the belly of the whale. I shuddered at the thought that he who flees the path of God, sinks down into the belly of the sea monster, a symbolic trap, provoking madness for the claustrophobic.
The sea roused by the slight evening breeze could be heard outside my window as I read. The island sea ringed by mountains was so small- a little stream compared to the furious Ocean described in the book. What made the vast expanse of the Ocean even wilder was the valid maxim that neither Necessity nor Free Will strike the decisive blow but Chance. I myself had once written that Chance is the fateful countenance of God.
I fell asleep, tired out by the erratic behavior of Captain Ahab with his one good leg, as the whale had seized the other. But Moby Dick had not been able to swallow him entirely like Jonah; from that moment, Captain Ahab’s obsession became madness and he hunted Moby Dick to take revenge. That was his fate: to hunt for the whale. What destiny to pursue your fate- and yet at the same time, what grandeur!
In the morning, the lapping of the waves woke me; I was happy to be up early. We were meeting at the house at noon where a taxi would take us to eat at my favorite seafood spot, the Sea-Mill. I took up my book again and read greedily.
When I saw the house, I was shocked. Nothing reminded me of the place I had known, where I had eaten and slept. He greeted me jovially as if he were welcoming me into a beautiful salon while the girl with my own name, shouted, “We live like crazy people here!”
She said it without shame or complaint, with the engaging appeal I recognized as that of the mad. Out of love, I had tolerated many strange things from my lover. In Athens, I was his sole initiate into a house completely shut off from outside view because, quite simply he was ashamed to let anyone see. In his unbalanced world his living arrangement did not aim for cleanliness but was transformed into a battle field where he engaged in “the relentless hunt for the invisible germ.” Now sickly and aged with a bad leg like Captain Ahab, it no longer bothered him to show his house which I have to describe.
The decrepit front door had lost several inches at the bottom and garbage and all God-made creatures crept in. A long hall divided the house into parts; the girl’s bedroom was on the right side. The room contained two pieces of old-fashioned furniture, neglected and worm-eaten which he had brought from the country house of his dead aunt. They had covered it with a tarpaulin to protect and transport it, God knows why, to a mice infested storage in another part of the island.
The girl with my name slept in a narrow bed against the wall under a bare window; the entire house had no curtains. A sofa, used as a dresser had clothes spread out upon it. The room next to hers had been his parent’s bedroom where I had slept during romantic nights and afternoons in the days when the bed was beautiful. “The afternoon sun used to touch half of it.” I had often whispered the Cavafian verse to my lover as we lay.
Now the room had been divided into two; one side made a functional library. A pile of papers, magazines and newspapers lay along the length of the room. At times when needed, they were used to cover the owner of the house. A thin nylon hung from the upper bars of the bed, held in place by two clothes pins, green and yellow (I imagine he had not chosen the colors.)
The wood floor was cracked and filmed with dust because the girl was not permitted to enter his “sacred” space. When he threw papers out, he shoved them with his cane towards the hall for her to sweep up. The left side of the house had two rooms, a salon and sometime bedroom. Now both rooms were crammed high with the overflow of paper. In the hall there was a little table and a foot stool for the telephone.
The part of the house beyond all imagination was the kitchen which he used as a sitting room and reception area. The shutters of the kitchen door were so cracked that air came in while the corroded and bent iron allowed entry for mice and insects. A big table provided space to serve food. Two old uncomfortable chairs and a stool comprised the furniture. The mildewed refrigerator had a small television and a DVD player on top of it. “We watch movies,” the girl said, “whichever ones he wants.”
The dish rack, shelves and cabinets were lack luster and worn. But the walls of the unpainted kitchen were the most startling, unhealthy and worthy of concern. Damp black and green stripes descended from the ceiling like big lizards, crisscrossing the walls, saturating everything with humidity. An odor of mold emanated from the walls.
Using the bathroom required tragicomic contortions, maneuvering a maze not to touch that spot; tearing off a bit of paper to use to flush the toilet, then stepping safely away to avoid being splashed. My God, this has gone too far, I thought.
“Why don’t you paint the house!” I exploded. “And of top of it, you invite people over! You used to be ashamed!”
“I was a fool back then. I didn’t realize that nobody was worth the effort. Whatever people say now doesn’t bother me at all.”
“So now, freed from your obsessions, you are even worse! In the past, you tortured me with your phobia about what people would say.”
“I said I was a fool.”
I sat down on the uncomfortable chair and we waited for him to get ready, moving as dreadfully slow in old age as he had in his youth. I didn’t think I could stand waiting any longer, but I controlled myself. Don’t ruin the hospitality, I thought.
We went to the Sea-Mill where the wind was blowing amid a solitary, wild beauty- there were no other people about. We chatted and ate and throughout he was infinitely attentive, as he had always been. “You are a gentleman to treat us.” I said.
Back at the hotel, I left the window open to hear the undulation of the sea as I took up my reading, listening to the roar of the Ocean in the book. Moby Dick, the whale had the true god-like property of omnipresence. There were testimonials that he had been seen at the same time in different places. The raving Ahab hunted the Leviathan: God in his most fearful, biblical form. I remembered the Book of Job, which spoke of the Godly arrogance and conceit in the rare creation of the Leviathan.
It was all wondrous, I felt exhilarated, removed from the successive daily worries of life of the last twenty years. I was free to stay in bed, to gaze at the sea and to madly read; for the pages to fly like birds before my startled eyes; to feel awe for the author. This is a book! This is inspired! – nothing like what I and so many other authors write, I said to myself.
Captain Ahab hunted the White Reaper, the deadly whiteness of Moby Dick. Reading the novel, I too, joined the madness of the hypnotized crew in his search.
Years ago, I had realized how when you enter the realm of another’s logic, their irrational behavior can capture, bewitch, even fascinate. Trying to understand the laws of chaos, you do not play with objective, “conventional”, terms nor certainly with your own but with the terms which irrational behavior imposes. That is how I explain why I stayed with him for so many years, just as the girl with my own name did now. Hypnotism affects not only the individual but also the collective. Did not a leader once hypnotize an entire nation with his madness?
To be honest, when you are simultaneously offered a vision, the irrational behavior of the other seduces you. My own love possessed an excellent mind; logical discernment in theoretical matters; rich sensitivity and a developed sense of humor. He was a captivating bouquet for love along with deep flaws and hysterics which transformed our days living together into the web of a deadly spider.
The days passed and Moby Dick remained huge. There was no end to the pages.
On the fourth day, I was to eat at his house. All the mechanics of preparation flew into action. The girl made repeated trips to the fruit and vegetable stores since her “boss” as she called him would forget, and then remember, something he needed. Since I had experience in the matter, I decided to go to the house when the meal was ready to spare being unnerved by the ceremonial madness of preparation. They agreed. After I had read and strolled about the streets I knew, I called to say I would drop by for coffee. I felt it would be ungrateful of me if I did not see more of him since he was paying my expenses.
Just as I got to the house, the girl grinning in wild extroversion exclaimed, “We just caught a mouse in the trap I put out! Do you know how many mice we’ve caught since we’ve been here?”
I was sickened. He knew my fear of mice and began to yell at her. “You animal, you stupid fool! I told you she was afraid of mice- you shouldn’t have told her!”
The girl shrieked and puffed out her cheeks, “I didn’t know!”
“You have no brain- you forget! All you remember is your ass which is a hundred pounds bigger!” He immediately turned to me and continued, pointing his cane at the girl. “You see the ass she’s got?”
“Don’t make me angry!” she shouted, and aside to me, she said, “You know how I let off steam when he gets crazy and yells at me? I get close to him and say, “Ah, go to hell, stupid.” She went up to him then and said it three times. “Ah! I feel better now!” she said.
“You’re so weird!” he continued, “You’re a moron!”
I felt terrible. I didn’t know if I should say anything. All I wanted to do was leave. “I’ll come back later,” I said.
My decision to leave fueled more curses. “See what you did, you creep?” He yelled again at the dazed girl. “You throw her out! Why did you tell her? Don’t you see she’s upset and she’s afraid of mice?”
At the hotel, I took up my reading again. The pages of the book bewitched me, stirred me right in the heart. The blacksmith, Perth hammered with the sparks of the fire flinging all around him while Captain Ahab asked him why he was not burned. Perth replied that he couldn’t be burned because he was completely scorched. Ahab was seized with hysteria at his answer and shook his fist, raging how he detested the misery of the other who was not crazy. He began to shout, asking the blacksmith why he didn’t go crazy; how he could not go crazy; how he, whom the heavens hated, could not be crazy.
My old lover was not crazy. We all know how madness is the great retreat of deranged personalities as I and even the girl with my own name were.
I went back in time for the meal which still wasn’t ready, delayed by his lunacy for details, and continual objections to the dismayed girl. For sure, one day, she’ll take a ladle to his head, I thought. At one point, he left the kitchen where we sat and went into his room, slamming the door with a bang, a sign he did not want to be disturbed. Then he came back out- his appearance left us flabbergasted.
He was nude from the waist up, girdled like the ancient Spartan women, the “phenominids”- the thigh-displayers. Two black garbage bags, clipped together with clothes pins served as pants. The girl exploded in laughter, “Look at him! How funny he is -like a Zulu!”
He explained his attire by saying there were two reasons for it: it was cool and it wouldn’t matter if it got dirty. We ate and admittedly, the extended preparation was well worth it but the waiting had constricted my hunger. I did not let on. They ate happily commenting on the food, the previous shouts and curses, all forgotten.
I got back to the hotel, heavy with the food and an indefinable sadness. I couldn’t read; I knew I would lose the bet I had made with myself. As much as I tried, I would not finish Moby Dick. Besides, I was leaving the next evening.
Today I leave. I did not want to stay longer knowing my old lover was not rich; I had my work in Athens. Before we would meet at a restaurant for lunch, I had time to continue reading, to pack my bag and take a walk to the beach.
After lunch, we went to the house for coffee. He proposed they accompany me to the airport but I refused. “No, the flight leaves at ten at night; you’ll be tired and it’s just more expense. No.” I decided with pride. “We’ll see each other in Athens now; we will part here.”
So it was. At the hotel, however, I could not sleep, even though I had time. I read a little and stopped on the page where Ahab shows his men the white flame, explaining how it lured the white whale. I got up to throw out the flowers which I had preserved changing their water daily. Without knowing why, I took a little flower and placed it among the leaves of Moby Dick. It seemed I wanted to save something.
Time did not pass; I went down to the hotel lobby. Suddenly, as if dark, unsuspected forces were within me, I began to suffocate. The outline of the sea narrowed; the fear of abandonment and separation raised its head and showed its fangs again. Kavvadia’s verse, “you turned to me and told me that in March you will have gone to different latitudes” had defined the space of our lives and tortured me every time we fought in the past. I continued to wander the streets hoping to shake off the torpor which solidified intact moments of the past, but each bit of road was marked with our story. I saw myself as a young girl then, wandering the back roads in tears, drowning and suffering because I would leave. I was leaving … What was this black feeling -the magnetic lure of the island or his face? I wanted to see his face again; to meet him with the passion of the past. What the devil was happening, I thought trying to control myself. I did not remember any of the bad or the scorn of his moods, nor my old hurts, covered as they were with this new pain. After all the years of our definitive parting, what had remained indestructible and undying, I now sought with madness. I decided to call but the phone rang with no answer. Wildly, a crazy obstinacy took hold of me as it had many times in the past: to seek the unattainable; to raise the dead; to exhaust all effort and restraint; to take situations to the extreme. I was stuck in the obsession of the past like an old gramophone needle. I could not escape the magnetism of his range. I called again and again only to be met with silence. Then I called the girl’s phone with no result.
I don’t remember how many times I called, or how many times I circled back to find myself at the point where they might have been. The clock on the town hall corresponded to my own, it was 7:00. I went back to the hotel and tried to call again when I was informed that there too, for hours, there had been a problem with phones on the island. They were not working.
But I had to see him! It was a matter of life and death at that moment. My Lord, how people can lose themselves in their memories!
I went to his house, they were inside; naturally they had not heard the phone ring. The girl with my own name had done something she had never done before: she had turned off her phone and stuffed it deeply in her purse.
The moment I saw his face, I grew calm but I was embarrassed. Seeing his face again, brought me back to the present. I was myself again.
“I thought, if you want, we could go all together to the airport.” I said. “Shall I come back in an hour with my things in the taxi?”
My old lover was delighted. His face lit up and the effusive girl happily agreed. I too relaxed, now centered and conscious of my present age and being.
Of course, at the last moment, when I came with the taxi at the agreed hour, he decided to change his shirt and pants, a matter which caused a twenty- plus minute delay. I was irritated with myself for having been prey to the past. Better that I leave, I thought with relief. At the airport, they sat patiently waiting until it was time for me to board.
The next morning, I woke up in my house. I unpacked my clothes and the last thing I took out was Melville’s book. The little flower within its pages had begun to dry, surviving into another form. Despite all my efforts I never finished reading the book.
My ancient ancestor, Hippocrates, was right when he said, “life is short, art is long.”- so too were the Latin copyists in the aphorism, “ars longa, vita brevis.”
Translated Gisela Kam, librarian at Princeton University