KRIS WHORTON - THREE GREEK WORDS
Originally from Boulder, Colorado, Kris Whorton has called the South her home since the late 90s. She currently lives in Chattanooga, Tennessee where she teaches Creative Writing, Literature, and Composition at the University of Tennessee. Her fiction has been published most recently by Driftwood Press where she also served as a guest fiction reader. She currently reads for Indianola Review. She has also published poetry with American Muse, Facets-magazine, and Pinball Publishing, and her Creative Non-Fiction has been anthologized.
Three Greek Words
In Amsterdam we get stoned and end up back at our boat hotel’s tiny room with bunk beds. One minute we’re just inside the door, laughing and lurching because of the mild rocking of the boat, and then we’re on a bunk together and Peter is on top of me. We’re not laughing anymore and Peter says, “Christina,” and kisses me and I kiss him back. It’s almost chaste, a closed lip kiss as though neither one of us is sure what we’re doing. We’re friends, have been for years, through high school and now our last summer before college graduation.
We kiss again and again and fumble to undress each other, quickly. We’re laughing and kissing in the cramped space of the lower bunk. Then we’re naked, or nearly so. I still have my underwear on, but his body is against mine. It is odd, wrong, and horrible in the way nudity is between people who should never see each other naked. But we don’t stop. My brain and my body can’t decide what they want. Here is skin against skin, smooth and unknown, but the room is too close; there’s no air, no window to open, just a tiny porthole revealing black sky. We work together, get my underwear off and the moment things should stop goes forward until he is inside of me. At first I am too surprised—in the moment my brain remembers it is Peter—and I start to laugh, an almost choked sound, but the rocking of the boat or us moving makes me sick. His face is in my hair, he’s kissing my neck, gently biting, tongue in my ear, and I can’t think. Then he pulls back just enough so he can kiss me on the mouth again or just look at me, but I don’t want to see him, not above me, not with the expression of joy and something more, maybe gratitude.
Maybe it is the pot thinking for me, making me think instead of just feeling. His hands move over me with tenderness, as though I am a rare piece of marble he can’t believe isn’t flesh and my body betrays me, hungry as it is for release. I pull him deeper into me because right now it doesn’t matter who he is; all I want is the waves of my body letting go.
And after, when he falls asleep on me and slips out, I edge my way out from under him. What have I done I think as I feel around the floor to find my underwear and bra, then my shirt and skirt. Still dizzy, I climb to the top bunk. His bunk. The porthole faces the harbor and all I can see as I fall into a woozy sleep is blackness and white lights in the distance. Out there is nearly endless sea, and a place I could be away from him and the morning.
When I wake up he is watching me sleep. “Breakfast?” he asks with false ease. I’ve seen him do this before when he’s unprepared for something.
“Coffee,” I say. “I feel like shit.”
He agrees and I climb down, groaning. He embraces me as though he’s helping me stand in the small space, but I’m not ready for the too long press of his body against mine, the vulnerability in his eyes and I fake smile, lips pressed into a line as I turn away quickly and open the door to step out into the hall.
After Amsterdam, nothing else happens, at least no sex or kissing. No touching. We go out of our way not to touch. Saving money is still important enough for us to share rooms, but we always get twin beds in the hotels that mark our nights as we make our way south. By the time we get to Athens nearly two weeks later, we’re friends trying to pretend like nothing happened.
Between museums, historical site visits, and shopping, we’re meeting Peter’s relatives. There’s a never ending stream of them and they all seem to want me to be Peter’s girlfriend. He assures me he’s telling them we’re not and after the first few times, I try to ignore them. Already I’m tired of his awkward laugh and the way I feel his eyes on me when he thinks I’m not paying attention.
The city is endless, noisy, and dusty and when we visit the Acropolis, the city spreads to the horizon in every direction. Athens glimmers in the heat like a mirage, blurred at the edges, faded and distant and unknowable. It seems vast and filled with secrets I will never learn.
I follow Peter to a taxi stop and get out when he does. The building looks like all the other I’ve seen of the city, white or tan and I don’t realize it isn’t his cousins’ apartment, the place we’ve been staying until the door is opened by a thin, sharp eyed woman in her thirties. She smiles and steps back, they hug, and Peter says, “This is Christina.” I think he is introducing me to her.
For a few moments we stand in her living room which is spotless and somehow devoid of any sign of personality—like a show home living-room or a hotel room—before she gestures for us to follow her to the bedroom with its double bed, unmade, and discarded clothes. Although I see only women’s clothes, blouses, skirts, an emerald colored sweater, a red bra draped on the chair, the dresser top, half of the bed I look around for something more. The room, the whole apartment seems incomplete as though it is waiting for something. There is one photograph on the wall, framed and hanging on the other side of the bed. It is a couple perhaps, both dark haired, his, perhaps curly. I stand in the doorway, Peter sits on her bed and the woman moves to the closet keeping her back to us, talking over her shoulder to Peter, ignoring me, as she takes her blouse off.
I wonder if she’s just home from work, headed to work, headed out. Home for the night. Are we having dinner with her? Staying the night? I say Peter’s name and maybe he doesn’t hear me because he doesn’t answer. They’re still talking but he looks at me and says something. She is wearing a pink bra and her back is narrow and freckled. Peter looks at me and back at the woman. After hearing his awkward laugh so many times, I think he is assuring her I’m only his friend. They could just as easily be talking about which blouse she should wear or what she’s been doing since he saw her last. Suddenly she is talking faster and then ushering us out as she buttons her blouse and I’m wondering why we went there at all. Peter says, “I haven’t seen her in a long time.”
“Is she an old girlfriend?” I ask, although I don’t know why; she’s probably ten years older and Peter hasn’t been to Greece since he was fifteen. He smiles as though the idea pleases him, but he shakes his head.
We leave Athens on an early flight to Crete and stay with Peter’s sweet house dress wearing great Aunt Eleni, and his jovial, balding Uncle Antoni. A seemingly endless stream of cousins drop by the first day. There are too many people in this family tree; it must sprawl like the ancient olive trees we passed on the way from the airport. After two hours I am tired of trying to follow the conversation. I feign fatigue, the need for a nap, and once in the room we’re to share, I listen through the closed door to them talking in the living room. The voices change as people come and go but the words don’t and I stay in the room because I’m tired of having everything translated for me.
The first day we have lunch at the limani, the ancient harbor, and watch fishing boats come in as we eat fried calamari with fresh lemons. We sit on a bench on the limani and watch the purple blue water shift and change colors in the sunlight. We shop downtown and in the old town and old women dressed in black scold me because I am wearing a sundress and showing too much skin. I learn this only after I’ve heard tsktsk a handful of times and noticed their looks of disapproval. Life is slower on the island and I find myself relaxing. The air smells of jasmine and sun warmed earth; it buzzes with the sound of cicadas. They fill every moment, every thought with the chatter of thousands of voices. The sky is the purest blue of cornflowers. Peter and I walk home, talking about friends at home, classes we’re taking; the old ease that has held us together for so long seems like it is back.
A man stands on the sidewalk outside the the jasmine covered gate at Eleni and Andoin’s house. “Niko,” Peter says, picking up his pace. The man, a god with the deepest blue eyes I’ve ever seen, an aquiline nose, and black curly hair like hyacinth clusters hugs Peter and then turns to me. Niko is so handsome he is a cliche but no less real, an Adonis or Achilles if Homer had described their beauty. He actually kisses the back of my hand and says my name like it is something precious. I can't understand his other words but the way his eyes hold mine as he asks Peter questions about me, compliments my beauty, which Peter translates for me, makes me pay attention. For the first time in weeks, someone looks at me for me, not as Peter’s girlfriend or friend.
“A relative?” I ask. Peter doesn’t offer anything about Niko except to say, “No.”
I don’t ask anything else about Niko, although I want to know everything. “He’s come to take us to the beach,” Peter says.
We hurry into the house and I change into my suit in the bathroom. When I go back out, they are waiting next to his car and when Niko turns to me, his face lights up. I feel shy as we get in it, curious about where we’re going, and pleased he wants to take us. As Niko drives us through a part of town that seems unfamiliar, I understand Hania is bigger than I thought it was.
We stop at the gas station. As he fills up, I do the calculation for gas price per liter, how liters compare to gallons, and how much he is spending. I’m appalled. At home it would cost an eighth of what it is here. When I whisper to Peter that we have to give Niko money, Peter says, “It is his gift to us. To you.”
When Niko climbs back in the car, I say, “Efkaristo” and his name and he smiles. It has been the easiest word to learn and the one that people seem happiest to hear.
Then we travel to the west end of the island an hour and a half away with the sound of the wind through the car. As Niko drives he glances at me in the seat next to him and talks loudly to Peter who sits in the backseat. The landscape is more open than the hill where Peter’s aunt and uncle live above town. It is dotted with the clusters of shops close to the road and farther out and between the small towns, rolling green hills, rocks, sheep, low stone walls, clusters of olive trees and the occasional vine row. We pass a few old men on bikes and they’re so far from anywhere it is hard to imagine where they’re going. An old woman, her dress and headscarf all in black, sits outside a stone house with a lamb in her lap. There are mountains, soft humps like animals sleeping in a field, to the south as we drive on.
Finally, Niko says, “Falassarna” as we crest a ridge to see the stunning blue sea spread before us like hope. A sharp peaked island sits about a 1/2 mile off the coast and we drop into a valley with a tan beach and incredible turquoise water close to shore. It is like a postcard, a perfect easy place to be.
We park, gather our things and trudge across the sand to the beach. Once our towels are out, we strip to our suits. I lie on my stomach, face turned away from Niko who has spread his towel on one side of me. Peter puts his on the other side.
I avoid Peter’s eyes and can’t look at Niko so close up but I feel him. Heat tickles low in my belly and I imagine pulling him into the water, kissing him, and the feeling the press of him against me.
Peter gets up and says he’s going to walk down the beach and I keep my head down as he walks away. Niko doesn’t say anything. After a few minutes I study the line of the island, imagining what I would say if I could speak Greek. Do I care to know what kind of work he does or where he grew up? Do I even want to get to know him? Mostly I wonder what it would be like to feel him inside me. Then I feel his lips, the lightest brush on my shoulder, like a burn. He kisses my shoulder blade next, my back first above and then below the string of my bikini top. His lips press the small of my back just above the line of my bottoms. Each time he presses his lips against my skin, I feel like I’m being branded.
He says my name softly, his breath in my hair, his hand on the small of my back as light as a bird. The press of his fingertips under the edge of my bottoms makes me ache. I imagine how his mouth would taste, and the shape my name made in his throat, and on his tongue.
I want to pant from the heat of him being close, roll onto my back and pull him onto me. I want to lose myself in him, but I suddenly feel too proud to give in. I shift to my side, shade my eyes and look at him. He smiles, leans in to kiss me and I although I’m not sure why, I pull away and say the second of the three Greek words I know. “Oshi.” No.
His eyes hold mine and then he smiles and nods. “Ok,” he says in English.
We stay on the beach side by side and my mind literally feels empty as I turn my head away and rest it on my crossed arms. All I can here is the waves washing in. There’s no talking, no cicadas. Nothing. The near silence is a relief.
When Peter comes back he sits down, looks at Niko and me not looking at each other and asks, “What happened?”
“Nothing,” I say and we all look out at the water or the island or the sky.
The waves roll in. The sun, a pale Niko says something and Peter nods. They are ready to go. I say, “Neh,” because I do understand this exchange and yes is the right answer. We pack up our towels and Niko reaches out to help me. His hand is warm and dry. He holds my gaze and my hand and again I feel the pressure of wanting him in my belly. Peter is watching us but I don’t look at him. Back at the car, the softness of the light says day has already shifted to evening.
We drive back to Hania in silence. And as is always the case, going back seems so much faster. At Theo Andoni’s house we thank Niko who kisses my hand as he did the first time I met him. For just a second I wonder if I should have kissed his mouth at the beach or let him kiss me. He smiles and says, “Goodbye Christina.”
It sounds so final. “Is he leaving?” I ask Peter.
“Yes, he’ll go to his apartment.”
“In Athens,” Niko says and I realize he understands everything Peter and I have said in front of him.
“You know English,” I say.
“Why do you talk to him instead of me?” I ask, gesturing at Peter.
“I don't want to say something wrong. I don't use it but every few years,” he says. I don't believe him but I smile.
“Goodbye,” I tell him and I thank him again, this time in English. That night before bed Peter sits on the edge of my bed. At first I think we’re just making plans for the next day, and although it is odd he’s sitting where he is instead of in his own bed on the other side of the room, I don’t think anything of it until he tries to kiss me and I turn away. The silence in the room expands. Peter doesn’t apologize or move to his own bed. He doesn’t even laugh awkwardly. That alone makes me look at him. He reaches out and traces my jaw with his finger, his eyes on his finger, not my eyes. I don’t shy away, although I want to, but I think he is going to say something, explain himself, tell me something important. Instead, his mouth moves into a tight little smile and he says goodnight.
Later when I try to sleep, I think about Niko’s lips on my skin, and the pink of his mouth. The words we could have said and still can. I check my shoulder and the middle of my back in the mirror the next morning expecting to see some mark from his lips. Instead of the red burns, the smudges I expect, I see faint brown marks, freckles or moles but nothing more. The next few days I wonder about his apartment in Athens and where he lives when he’s in Hania, when I’ll see him again, and what will happen. Peter and I ride rented bikes, visit the limani and the harbor front restaurants, and avoid thinking about going home and back to college. Our last year, our future, everything seems so uncertain.
The night before we’re scheduled to fly home aunt Eleni prepares a feast we’ll eat on the roof under the arbor. She spends the day making all the foods I have come to love. There are platters of roasted chicken and Dolmas with squash flowers and tomatoes and peppers, Moussaka, Tiropita, Spanikopita, baklava, cakes and Turkish coffee. The kitchen is a potpourri of savory and sweet, garlic, oregano and stewing tomatoes, butter and honey and cinnamon. The arbor is strung with white lights interwoven with the grape vines that have grown there for at least fifty years.
As the sun drops below the horizon and the cicadas quiet, I carry the platters up and place them on a long table. Small clusters of people I’ve never seen stand talking, drinking, and laughing. On the third trip up, I see Niko with one group, a beer in his hand. When he sees me, he sets his beer down, crosses to me, and takes my hands. He kisses me next to my mouth, a lingering kiss that makes my cheeks warm. Uncle Andoni turns on a boom box and everyone begins to dance. I move into Niko’s arms, pressing close to him, so relieved to feel the hardness of his body against mine.
My body thrums in his arms and I study the pulse at the base of his throat, wishing I could bury my face in the space between his shirt and neck, feel his skin against my mouth. He smells musky like spicy olives and rosemary. Peter sits at a different table. When Niko and I finish eating, I lean close and quietly tell him we should go, that I want to stay at his apartment tonight. He nods.
“You understand what I want,” I say. Niko nods, but he’s looking at Peter who is moving from group to group chatting and smiling.
“Neh?” I ask and he looks at me and nods again.
Uncle Andoni passes out glasses of Retsina and I say no each time someone approaches with shots for us. Niko drinks one after another. His body is turned to me as he talks to people who come to sit across from us. The music plays on, people laugh and talk and I don’t pay any attention to what they’re saying. I’m waiting for a chance to leave, trying to imagine how we can get out without Peter’s aunt and uncle, and everyone else knowing. Another glass of Retsina ends up in front of me and I ignore it, although everyone around me is drinking the liquor like it is the sweetest nectar. When Peter sits down, he puts a beer in front of me and holds one for himself. He’s drunk.
Niko pushes the Retsina closer to me and I say, “Oshi” and push it back. The one sip I took at lunch our first day on the island was enough to convince me I would never fit in if this is considered delicious. Peter says my name and when I look at him, he says my name again but doesn’t look at me. The woman next to him says something to Niko and they continue to talk. I hear my name several times; the woman, her maybe husband, Niko and Peter trade it back and forth, but somehow I know they aren’t talking about me.
“Who are they talking about?” I ask. Nobody answers and Niko won’t look at me. I lean closer to Peter and ask him again, quietly this time. He makes a show of listening to the others then smiles and points at Niko. “His wife,” he says.
I look at Niko and back at Peter thinking I must have misunderstood. Peter nods.
“He’s married?” I whisper. Niko stops mid-sentence and turns to me. He shakes his head once but I know he isn’t saying “No” so much as “I’ll explain.” But I don’t need an explanation to see it is true.
“Yes,” Peter says. He smiles and leans back. I have only seen him look this pleased when something less than wonderful has happened to someone he dislikes. “You met his wife in Athens,” he says.
I sift through my memory of all the people I met in the city. His wife? I’m stalling really because I don’t know what to say. There were women we talked to in shops and at houses, at the museum, and the party his cousins had. There was the lovely Electra who had a boyfriend. Christina. And the odd, empty feeling apartment with the clothes all over the bedroom. The two men’s shirts in the closet. The questions. The freckles. The photo of a couple. Of course.
Aunt Eleni walks up to the table and stops next to Peter. She hold a tray of Spanakopita and I know she is telling him to ask if I want more, but part way through the words I now realize I recognize from hearing so many times her question turns into a different one. The look on her face tells me she is worried I’m sick. She leans in to set the tray on the table and Niko shakes his head. He answers quickly, his tone dismissive and then his voice is light, a quip and everyone laughs.
My cheeks burn as I smile at Aunt Eleni. It feels so forced I can’t imagine how I must look. Leaning close to Peter, I say, “Jesus” under my breath. “You could tell I liked him. Why didn't you tell me?”
He frowns and picks at the label on is bottle. He seems bored with me, with all of this. “Would it have mattered?” he asks. I’m not sure what to say except yes. Peter shrugs.
“Do I speak Greek? Does he speak English to me?” I ask. Peter shrugs again. I move to stand up but Niko says, “Wait” and presses my hand onto my thigh with his hand on top as though it will keep me from going. I look at his hand in my lap. His touch doesn’t feel the way I remember from the beach.
Looking at Niko’s hand on top of mine, Peter leans in close and says, “It didn’t mean anything to you.”
I almost tell him it did, does. He does. I have always cared about him. I almost tell him he didn’t care about me that way either, but I understand what he means. The edge that has been there these last weeks isn’t about me not wanting to kiss him or have sex with him again. It’s about the fact that it happened in the first place. That I let it and knew he was thinking it would mean something more. That I knew, somehow, in some part of me, that every time he’s explained who I am, he has hated me and loved me.
There aren’t words when we need them, or the right ones anyway. Even if we know the language, we can’t always say what we feel, what we mean, and want. We don’t even know. I have to leave, get out, be alone.
“Tell them Thank You and I'm sorry but I'm not feeling well,” I say, but I can’t look at anyone. Peter or Niko can surely do that for me. Maybe someone else speaks English. I stand up, and move across the roof as quickly as I can. The music plays on. People laugh and talk as I pass. The lights woven through the grape arbor are bright until I reach the stairs and take the first step, black as a pit, and trust I’ll land right.