Par Avion

Par Avion

Issue 25 by Mary Vensel White

Par Avion

Peter

His mother’s condo still smelled like paint. She’d been moved in a little over two months, having finally sold the house in Bellflower where he and his sister had grown up. Pearl, his sister, had picked up a brochure about the place: “Emerald Villas, an affordable independent-living senior community.” For almost a year, their mother had been on the waiting list for a two-bedroom unit; finally, in April, a Villas rep had called with hearty congratulations—as if it were some final destination lottery—and she’d been settled by June. And now, mid-August, the place seemed much smaller than Peter had remembered, more stuffy and confined and certainly, much darker with the windows covered.

He crossed the small living room and pulled back the curtain. Outside, manicured green accentuated by patches of flora, smooth walkways with benches situated along the way. He let the curtain drop and turned around. Dust billowed lazily in the late afternoon haze. The light brought out the gleam of the marbled tile and the nap in the beige carpet. Both were new. Buyers could choose from a small range of neutral colors and materials: fresh paint, up-to-date flooring, a new skin for the rooms. His mother had kept the comfortable, blue sofa and the sharp-edged coffee table that had given his youngest, Ryan, three stitches when he was a toddler. In fact, his mother hadn’t bought anything for her new home and the worn furnishings made it seem familiar to Peter in some confused, fun-house-mirror way, like a pared-down, slightly crowded version of the old house.

In the kitchen, he opened the refrigerator. A jug of unopened orange juice, six bottled waters, condiments in the plastic shelves. Nothing perishable. He closed the door and a puff of cold air ruffled his hair. The kitchen was small but plenty for one person; his mother had never been much of a cook. Moving her in had gone mostly without a hitch. At some point, they’d have to contend with the small storage unit in Bellflower, crammed with things she couldn’t let go but didn’t need. Pearl lived in Cerritos, which is why they’d focused the search here. Peter was farther away in Long Beach, where he’d opened his law office after his oldest son, Reese, was born. Reese was eleven now; they’d been there over ten years, he realized.

He walked into his mother’s bedroom, which was also dark, with the shades closed over the only window. He turned on the light. The bed was made, dresser uncluttered, nothing out of place. To be fair, this was how it would look whether his mother was here or not; she’d always been a very neat housekeeper. Even after parties, when the house had been crowded with friends or relatives for an entire day or evening, he would wake to find everything tidied up. To this day, the sound of clanking dishes was a soothing one; his mother must have stayed up late, all those times, putting everything right while he was falling asleep.

Pearl had called Peter that morning, her voice bordering on frantic. He’d had to cancel a ten o’clock meeting and a lunch date with his wife. It was something the counselor had suggested, a weekly lunch to “touch bases away from the house.” They took turns choosing a location. Tanya usually picked a restaurant close to home, even though she didn’t work and he was the one who had to drive over. That day, they’d been planning to meet at a deli near the law office, his choice. But then Pearl had called and although she said she’d been to the house twice already, Peter had decided to come himself.

She was a warm person, his younger sister, and certainly she took much of the responsibility for their mother, but Pearl lacked common sense. She’d talked to their mother Sunday night, she said, and had been unable to reach her since. It was Wednesday now. Peter couldn’t help thinking there could be something Pearl had forgotten or overlooked.

He went back through the living room and opened the closet in the foyer, where Pearl said his mother’s suitcases should be. Empty, save for some jackets and a few small boxes. He went back outside and circled the block to confirm there was no sign of her car. What else he was supposed to do, he didn’t know. They’d both been calling (straight to voice mail) and texting (no response) all morning. Pearl had spoken to a couple of their mother’s friends; no one had any idea where she was. There was nothing written on the calendar in the kitchen, something they’d been conditioned to check from their school days, when their mother color-coded their activities and wrote reminders and encouragements: Final Day of Swim Team!, Pearl’s Piano Lesson, or, Happy Birthday!!! She had always done this, even before the divorce from their father; afterwards, when it was the three of them and especially when Peter and Pearl started driving on their own and becoming more independent, she gave them many freedoms but always stressed the importance of saying where they’d be, what time they’d return. And now here she was, missing, without a word to anyone.

Peter stood on the small patch of grass next to the front door. It was mid-day, summer in southern California. He could feel where his tee shirt, moistened, clung to his lower back. Should he talk to a neighbor? Should they call the police? Really, he had no idea. She was a grown woman, after all, sixty-two years old. He knew he should be worried and yet, as he scrolled through emails and missed calls, as he remembered his two o’clock meeting and the pile of paperwork on his desk, even as he went back into the warm, dark condo where everything was stubbornly orderly, Peter felt mostly annoyed at his mother, and in general, quite put out.

***

Anita

When she opened her eyes, they were traveling over a bridge. On either side, white cables flashed by, cutting the sky into geometric bursts of color. She peered through the taxi window, catching a glimpse of expansive, blue-green water before the car was back on land. She must have dozed off.

Anita didn’t remember the impressive bridge but it did bring another memory: nighttime, a line of yellow lamps, a much smaller bridge lowering and separating, disappearing under the road on either side. A procession of boats passing through. A salty kiss. A white, button-up shirt that was softer than it looked, the warm skin underneath.

She cleared her throat. “The bridge, is it new?”

The driver looked at her in the rearview mirror. His thick, black eyebrows tilted together. “No. It has been there always.”

He was probably twenty-five years old, and it had been forty-two since Anita had been to the island of Euboea, in Greece. The only other time, actually, that summer when she was twenty and had come—much like this time—on some crazy, insistent impulse.

On the island, trees lined the road. Soon, they were making their way through residential areas, the streets filled with businesses, shops and people. The city of Chalcis was a mix of very old and modern. One moment, they drove under an arch made of ancient brick; the next, sleek, white apartment buildings lined up, shoulder to shoulder. Anita asked the driver to take her near the shore and after some back and forth about time and cost, he agreed.

She had booked a fairly expensive room in a touristy section, where the island came closest to the mainland, separated by a narrow strait. Opening her purse, she took out a packet of envelopes, held together with a rubber band, and a folded, Google map, on which she had marked the return address from the envelopes. The hotel was less than a half-mile from that mark. Another memory surfaced: eating some sort of pie, crusty bread wrapped in foil, cheese melted and steaming inside, standing by sparkling water, always by water, hands entwined.

The driver pulled next to a curb and looked at her expectantly.

“This is it?” she asked.

He nodded, opened his door.

She got out and peered up at what she realized was the backside of the hotel. Four stories with a service floor underneath; the rectangular building was simple, classic, and painted white. This is how Anita remembered the country: sunny days, white buildings and blue sea, bursting tastes and smells, warm breezes.

From the start, this trip had been very different. She had been able to purchase a first-class ticket, for one. Selling the house and buying the condo had provided her a decent chunk of money and after investing most of it, she’d decided to splurge. It was something she’d rarely done, while raising children and worrying about setting aside for her older years. Well, here she was, older.

When she reached her room on the third floor, she propped her suitcase in the corner, used the restroom, and then pulled back the heavy curtain. Her mouth fell open at the sight. Mountains loomed in the distance, framing a hillside of haphazard, white architecture. The only thing in common between the varying sizes and shapes of buildings was that each one was crammed with windows. And why not? Shimmering water, dotted with white-sailed boats, spread like a rug before her. Directly below the hotel, a wide colonnade, lively with pedestrians, hugged the shore.

She went to the bed and sat down, retrieving again from her purse the packet of letters. Each one was almost identical: pale blue with a border of bold red and darker blue slashes. Another flash of blue: the stamp that read “Par Avion” and under that “By Air Mail.” She flipped through, looking at the colorful variety of stamps. Some were classical figures in white; others showed buildings or modern people she couldn’t identify. All of the stamps included the words ΕΛΛΑΣ-HELLAS, which she’d always assumed was “Greece”; she could find out tomorrow, when she went to buy a travel guide.

Anita had been a bookish child, although most children she knew growing up were more bookish than kids today seemed to be. Her grandsons were eleven and nine and constantly attached to devices (their mother’s word). Anita had kept a bookshelf stacked with picture books she’d read to them after their bath, and longer stories recommended at the bookstore. She still had most of the books but kept them in a closet at the new place; the boys hadn’t asked for them in some time. In fact, they didn’t visit much anymore, always busy with soccer and baseball, music lessons and Boy Scouts.

She leaned back against the pillow and pressed one of the letters against her lips. She’d like to explain to her grandsons what it felt like to open the mailbox and see a thin, blue envelope with your name on the front, to know that a foreign boy had pushed his pen against the thin paper, licked the gummy flap, and sent it on its journey across oceans and countless miles. The rush of possibility, the exquisite anticipation. But her grandsons would laugh at that, especially practical, serious Reese, who had helped set up her email account when she moved to the condo. He was brash and sharp as a tack, her oldest grandson, and at eleven, he already had the rigid posture of his grandfather. At times, the same lack of focus. These boys, who could click on their phone or pad or whatever, and read any type of information, see absolutely anything they wanted to see—no, they wouldn’t understand the heightened anticipation of a letter from a pen pal in Greece.

It had been Anita’s mother’s idea. In a children’s magazine, she’d found an address where you could write to be matched up with a pen pal. Even as Anita had penned that first letter, giving her age, grade in school and address, a part of her didn’t think anything would happen. Within a few weeks, she got a postcard with the name and address of a boy who was fifteen, living in Chalcis, Euboea, Greece. The boy, Costas Christodoulou, was a year older than her and his first letter was polite and factual: where he lived with his parents and older sister, what his school was like. She had read that first missive over and over, enamored with his formal English and the stylistic flair of his handwriting. They wrote of hobbies and friends, vacations and studies and eventually, they exchanged photos. Costas was tall and thin, with dark, curly hair. He wore sandals and leaned against a white, stucco wall, his face nearly covered by dark sunglasses. Their correspondence continued for six years, through adolescence and into young adulthood. They began to write more intimately. Costas had a girlfriend for two years; Anita dated a few boys throughout high school. At times, their letters took on a flirtatious tone. They wrote of their plans and frustrations. Costas’s father expected him to continue his schooling on the island, but he had other ideas. There were arguments and threats but in the end, he stayed and did what was expected. At the time, Anita’s mother wanted her to enroll in classes at the junior college, but Anita wanted to take some time off. It was 1975, and she was (she supposed now) doing most of the things that come to mind when anyone thinks of that decade. Experimenting, exploring. She had a job at the roller rink, spraying deodorant into skates and cleaning after hours, and a band of friends her mother called the Hippie Brigade. Things grew more and more tense at home and yet, Anita couldn’t afford to move out. She felt unsure, trapped.

Outside the hotel, the sun was sliding behind the mountains. Anita got up and stood again at the window. The water in the bay was smooth as glass. She put the letters in the top drawer of the hotel desk and grabbed her purse. At the airport, she’d exchanged several hundred dollars for euros. She probably could have gotten a better exchange rate at her bank, but the trip had happened so suddenly. Within three days, she had decided and bought her ticket, had packed her bag and closed up the new condo. The world through the window of the taxi on that early, summer morning had seemed vivid, and new, and promising. She had texted her daughter, Pearl, from the airport, only moments before she boarded. Anita hadn’t told her children about the trip for good reason. They’d think she shouldn’t, or couldn’t, or wouldn’t. But here she was.

She applied some lipstick and left the hotel room without looking back, determined to find something breaded with cheese inside, to inhale the fishy breeze off the water, and to buy a few, colorful postcards to send her grandsons, who just might appreciate something that had traveled half way across the world, after all.

***

Pearl

Pearl’s hands were shaking when she put the carafe back into the coffee maker; the thin glass rattled against the sides before settling into place. Too much, she thought. I’ve had too much.

She’d been up since four a.m. She had texted her mother several more times, had called and listened to the strange ringing that went on and on. Eventually, she’d resumed her normal morning routine: coffee, food, talk radio. At her dinette, she stared over an empty mug at the messy kitchen. Time to go, she said out loud. A missing mother was no reason to skip work, even if the mother was over the age of sixty, which really wasn’t considered very old anymore, was it? Besides, her mother looked great for her age. Slim, with hair still the golden blonde of her younger days and kept in a wavy bob. Anita had always been what Pearl would consider a neat dresser, but recently she’d seemed to up the flair factor of her wardrobe: here, a bright scarf, there, dark denim jeans with metallic embroidery on the back pockets. She’d surprised Pearl at Christmas by showing up to midnight Mass in a new, caramel-colored leather coat, fringe hanging from the sleeves.

Where are you, Pearl whispered, checking her phone again. It was Friday morning. She hadn’t heard from her mother since Sunday. Peter had been to the condo for the past two days, but she couldn’t stand to go there anymore. The last time, she had an honest-to-God chest pain, standing there next to the dining room table. She had to sit down and lean her face on its smooth, cool surface. It was the same table they’d had growing up and she knew without looking that underneath one end, her name had been carved jaggedly into the wood with one of the good steak knives. Her mother had never found out and why would she? It was only when they’d gone over to supervise the movers and help their mother with the items she considered too valuable to trust to a licensed moving business that Pearl had thought about the carving and wondered if finally, she’d be found out. Would her mother yell at the thirty-five-year-old Pearl for the offence of her twelve-year-old self? She never found out. The table was transported without incident, her secret protected.

Pearl worked at a nonprofit that provided all types of assistance for the homeless. Job training and housing, referrals to shelters, hospitals, internet cafes and places where you could get a free shower. Pearl’s official title was Outreach Coordinator, but what she really did was brainstorm ways to get people and businesses to help with their mission. Maybe, for example, she could persuade a restaurant owner to offer incentives to its customers for contributing meals for those in need. She visited charity sales to stockpile blankets and jackets and if she was convincing enough, she’d get them for free. A recent victory had been securing the sponsorship of a local hotel. They’d promised to develop an employment and housing package in order to take on several new hires. Sometimes, Pearl had the chance to work directly with the homeless people who came in, but only when they were short-handed in the office. She actually preferred working at the broader, more removed level; her heart wasn’t strong enough to hear so many stories of lost family and diminished hope.

In the car, Pearl set her purse down in the passenger seat and leaned her head back. Her stomach was making dramatic sounds. She’d had a bland meal, toast and a boiled egg; it couldn’t be that. She pressed her hand to her forehead and found it cool but clammy. The coffee, she thought, too much. Mom, where are you?

She’d called her father the night before, which was probably what had gotten her out of sorts more than anything else. It was a longshot, of course. He rarely spoke to her mother and only whenever they were forced together for a family event, usually something for her nephews. When was the last time she’d seen him? Ryan’s first communion the year before, she remembered. He and Jenny had come out from Idaho, where he lived in a big log house on a lake, like some sort of outdoorsman when he’d grown up here in California, in Gardena. Jenny had worn a big, flowered skirt and looked downright ungainly next to Pearl’s mother, who’d been chic in a cream-colored suit. Oh, she was being mean. Who cared what either of them wore?

Pearl started the car and rolled the window down several inches. It was already hot at seven-thirty in the morning. Sometimes she could almost understand why he had left the incessant sunshine, the endless litany of warm days.

What would you like me to do, her father had asked on the phone. Emphasis on the me, not on the do. I don’t know, she had stammered. She had never made demands on him, wouldn’t know where to start. He had moved away when she was thirteen, after the protracted divorce and a few trips back to clear out the garage, where her mother had been storing the accumulating boxes of his belongings. Sometimes, Pearl would peel back the tape and look inside, would run her hands over the spines of books, the sad jumble of socks.

Let me know when you find something out, her father had said. And she could picture him, hanging up the phone without a care in the world, sauntering back to the wide windows where he could gaze at his postcard-worthy view. In the distance, Jenny strolling through a field of wildflowers in that long skirt. Or doing something else equally nauseating. Pearl knew she shouldn’t feel this way—it wasn’t kind or really, very mature—but she allowed herself these petty thoughts from time to time and it didn’t hurt anybody, did it, so long as she didn’t act on them?

On Del Amo Boulevard, a car had pulled off the road, apparently in a hurry because it was parked diagonally, its tail end jutting into the farthest lane. This caused a massive delay, of course, and by the time Pearl drew up near the vehicle, her heart was racing and her back was stuck fast to the leather seat. She imagined her mother, passed out somewhere in her missing car, windows rolled up, trapped in the heat.

When she finalized her own divorce, Pearl had finally gained some insight into the events of her childhood, the strain her mother must have felt. At first it seemed uncanny that Pearl had married someone so entirely like her father—distracted, selfish—and that he, too, had left to be with someone else. But Pearl’s marriage had lasted only thirteen months while her parents were together for almost twenty years, and Andy had left her for a man instead of another woman. The feelings of abandonment, disbelief and insecurity, she assumed, were the same. She found herself divorced at twenty-four, just three years after she had dropped out of law school. Another sharp turn in the road of her life. Her mother had always told them not to marry too young (the implication being: don’t do what I did), and Pearl waited for an “I told you so” that thankfully, never came. In fact, her mother had never said anything about Pearl’s divorce, other than to offer an ear and at times, a check.

Once, her brother Peter said he’d never met someone with a downward employment trajectory like Pearl’s. Every job you get, he said, pays less and less. This wasn’t entirely true and yet, she couldn’t really defend against it. She’d gone from the possibility of attorney pay to a job as a legal clerk, to a variety of jobs outside the legal field: credit union, animal shelter, the nonprofit that organized charity runs (they’d gone out of business but she’d loved that job), Catholic Charities, the YMCA, and finally, her current employer. I need a job that means something, she had told Peter. She couldn’t imagine working any other way. Lately, she’d been thinking that law degree would have come in handy. She could help a homeless person petition the court or provide representation for minor offenses. But she’d never admit that to Peter, who had stayed in law school and now had his lovely, two-story house and stunning wife, his great kids and new cars every few years.

As her car edged down the street, Pearl noticed that the stalled vehicle was steaming. There was a fire truck and a black smudge on the concrete underneath. It had been aflame, she realized. The smell was still in the air: oily, damp, acrid. Her stomach turned.

Where was her mother? She wouldn’t have left without letting them know, without letting Pearl know. This was her mother, the most organized person she knew. The one who’d held her hand when she went to court to end her marriage. Her mother, who’d had no one to hold hers. A gurgling rose in Pearl’s throat. What if something had happened to her mother?

Blinking the sweat from her eyes, she made it past the emergency vehicles and pulled her car to the side of the road. She fumbled with the door handle, opened it, and hurried around the front of the car. Clawing at her face to get her sunglasses off, she nearly tripped over the curb before she vomited right there in front of the Dollar Tree store, onto the neatly trimmed strip of grass and barely missing her new purple suede flats with the shiny, embroidered, gold sunbursts.

***

Anita

She stood at the base of the fortress, looking at the greenery draped over the top of the dusty, crumbling stone, at the places where it grew right through breaches in the wall. This ancient site was the top tourist stop in Chalcis, and Anita had spent the better part of the morning, first on the tour bus that brought them up the winding road, then wandering through the cool rooms inside, looking at the artefacts and salvaged reliefs: lions with humanistic faces, horse-like creatures with beaks and long tails, others with wings or crowns.

Outside, it was hot and dusty. She thumbed through her guidebook, reviewing the main highlights about Karababas. Built in the 1600s by Turks to protect the city from the Venetians, the architecture of the place was actually more Venetian than Turkish, according to her book. She was learning that the entire island was a hodgepodge of cultures, its history jumping from one conquering force to another, one infusion of inhabitants to the next.

At the edge of one of the short, stone walls was a stunning vista of Chalcis. Anita stood next to a group of tourists from the bus and looked beyond the telephone wires and scant trees to the city of white buildings, stacked like Legos, to the soft, brown hills in the distance, to the gradations of blue sky beyond. Layers upon layers, a different view at each turn.

The tour guide, a white-haired gentleman with deep crevices on his tanned face, had called the place Karababa Castle. In her guidebook, it said Fortress of Karababas. Many places in Greece, along with having had many identities throughout history, also had been called many things. There were various spellings and names for almost everything. The city, for example, once called Chalkida, could be spelled as Khalkis, Chalkis, or most commonly now, Chalcis. The island of Euboea might be written also as Évvoia or Evia, although it was originally called Negroponte, a name itself which had a confused history as a Greek phrase interpreted by Italians.

To be honest, she’d had enough of history for the day, and the tourists standing near her at the fortress’s scenic spot seemed to have turned their attention elsewhere too. They talked about lunch, mostly, and where to find a great glass of ouzo. Anita had eaten her breakfast at the hotel—simple, continental fare—and she was looking forward to finding a good, local restaurant for lunch. Back home, she’d ask her son Peter for recommendations, on the rare occasions she’d find herself in need of a special place to eat. He checked a website and had never steered her wrong. But she had no intention of calling him. In addition to the history of Euboea and Chalcis, she’d also had quite enough of her adult children for the day.

She hadn’t looked at her phone since she left California a week before. Really, was that so strange? That simple fact had stupefied Pearl, who was constantly looking at her own phone, poring over photos and witty things her friends had said. Over her toast and fruit compote that morning, Anita had finally pulled her “device” from the recesses of her purse, to find that she’d never turned it back on after the flight. When she did, it started to beep and chime endlessly, and she’d almost dropped it onto her plate trying to find the volume button. Apparently, also, she’d never pushed “Send” on the text she’d typed Pearl from the airport. As soon as she did, her phone rang and rang. She’d had to quickly finish her breakfast, go back to her room, and suffer through an hour of apologies and explanations to both Pearl and her brother, Peter, who had been so angry he could hardly speak.

Really, she did feel bad about it. They’d been very worried. It wasn’t every day—any day—she did something like this. But when she’d heard Peter’s tone, the way he had of taking over, directing her, making demands— And then there was Pearl, whose voice rose to a whiny level reminiscent of her childhood, those times when she had to practice piano, or clean her room, or do anything, really, she didn’t feel like doing. Anita loved her children, God knows she did, but speaking to them that morning had taken some of the wind from her sails. And so she’d changed her plans for the day and bought a ticket for a relaxing tour of the city. It was maybe a little cowardly and not a wholly independent move, but she didn’t care.

They filed back onto the bus and the guide began to talk about the Paralia, the central plaza and colonnade visible from her room. They’d find lunch there, he said, in one of the many restaurants along the water’s edge. Afterwards, they’d drive the twenty-five kilometers to Eretria, another ancient site.

Anita leaned back in her seat and listened to his deep, assured voice. Just for today, she thought, I’ll be happy to be led.

When she arrived in Chalcis that June day so many years ago, the airport was crowded and awash in sunlight. She had a foldable map of Athens she’d found at a bookstore back home. She used it to find the train station where, thankfully, someone understood her enough to help buy a ticket to Chalcis. She remembered that the train tracks ran right alongside the water at the Chalcis station. She had Costas’s address on a piece of paper and limited cash. This was 1975—no internet, no Google Maps, no cell phones. She’d never had a reason to ask for his phone number. Slinging her backpack over her shoulder, she had started walking.

Outside the tour bus, the countryside streamed by in patches of brown and green. Anita tried to recall details from her earlier journey, but the memories came in short bursts. She remembered walking into a corner store for a sweating bottle of soda and showing the address to the owner. He was wearing an apron, which he untied from his waist and handed to a younger employee. And this man, the first person she met in Greece, walked her all the way to Costas’s house.

She was standing on the porch, had just opened her backpack to get something to wipe her face with, when Costas himself walked up.

“Anita,” he said, and before she could answer, he had gripped her by the arms and pulled her in for a kiss on either cheek.

His physical presence affected all of her senses. Tall and dark, with square shoulders under a striped tee shirt, he wore a citrusy cologne she inhaled as his soft lips pressed in. And the melodious way he said her name felt like a punch in the stomach.

On her best days, on her worst days, Anita would close her eyes and try to remember that first impression, the sheer, life-altering promise of it. This person, this place, this life. The wide streets winding through white storefronts, the neatly porched homes, the blue-blue of the Grecian sky, like a pure drop of indigo compared to the wishy-washy sky of California (as she then recalled it). She remembered feeling like a life force, what people talk about when they talk about youth and the way it pulses through you. Her recollections were time, place, and people, but also: youth, pulsing, her blood alive and coursing and seeking and devouring. Every step progress towards a new, unknown, exciting destination. The sensation that anything could happen, any day. It was also getting on a plane by herself and flying across the globe. It was Greece and its foreignness; it was past and present and future.

But it was the particular thrill of Costas, to be sure. Wide-smiled, wavy-haired, gentle Costas. He led her by the hand that summer, to places and experiences she couldn’t have predicted. He took her in without question and convinced his parents to let her sleep on the couch—his mother, really, as his father was traveling most of the summer for business. Costas had just finished his third year of university and was training to be a teacher. Throughout the summer, he was assisting in a classroom, so he was busy until noon every weekday. His mother also worked and his sister had married the year before and moved out, so Anita was alone most mornings until he returned. Sometimes, she’d play house and prepare his lunch. Other days, they’d go out. Often, they’d make love and stay in until just before his mother was due home from work.

The bus stopped along the colonnade and everyone began to file out. The couple from the Netherlands in their matching earth-tone outfits, the family from Spain, the young man and woman who couldn’t keep their hands off each other. Anita scooted forward in her seat and waited her turn. There were two other single people on the tour—a woman at least ten years her senior, and a middle-aged man, and the three at times exchanged small smiles of recognition. She liked this aspect of traveling, the people-watching. You never knew exactly what someone’s story was, and you were free to imagine.

Soon, she had left the group, with the agreement to meet back at the bus in an hour. She had planned to have a nice, formal lunch but decided instead to grab a sandwich and eat outdoors, by the water. She didn’t want to be contained. Near a docked sailboat, she found an empty bench and sat down with her food and another slippery bottle of soda.

Leaving Chalcis the last time had been so difficult, yet entirely necessary. Costas would be starting back at school and after three-and-a-half weeks, his mother was losing patience with their long-term guest and perhaps, beginning to worry about having an American daughter-in-law. Anita and Costas shared a tearful goodbye at the curb, where the taxi his mother had called and paid for sat idling. Costas talked about coming to California in the spring, or possibly the next summer, after he graduated. Anita cried herself nearly sick, all the way to Athens.

There was a sleepy vibe on the tour bus when everyone returned from lunch. Anita thought she could tell who had found ouzo because before the sleepiness descended, there were contained bursts of laughter, a mellow joyfulness. She thought about trips she and her ex-husband took when the kids were young—San Diego, Palm Springs. Usually someplace the kids could splash around while they had tropical drinks. This was before Allen started traveling more and more for his business. For a few years, they had Disneyland passes but it became hard for her to take the kids on her own. An odd number is never good at an amusement park, when everyone wants to ride with someone else, and when one child (Peter) is adventurous and fearless and the other (Pearl) would wait until the last possible moment to decide she couldn’t get on a ride after all.

So many things were ruined by Allen and what he did. As accustomed as Anita had become, after more than twenty years of being divorced, at times it still surprised her to realize their family had broken up. They’d been divorced longer than they were married, and this fact, too, seemed surreal and hard to believe.

When she returned from Greece, she resumed her job at the skating rink. To appease her mother, she enrolled in three classes at the community college, and that’s where she met Allen, who was taking general education courses before transferring to pursue a degree in business. At least that was his plan at the time. He was working at Sears, part-time in the appliance department, when someone approached him about a job with an eyewear distributor. He started working for them, then transferred to an even larger company. He finished an AA degree at the community college but that was all. The new company offered a great salary, enough to buy the Bellflower house, which was old but good-sized. The children were born. And when Peter was ten and Pearl was eight, Allen took another job, with a French eyewear conglomerate. He started traveling to Paris a few times a year. Anita was thirty-five and it felt like the American dream was raining down on them, big time. They talked about buying a larger house instead of continuing to renovate the one they had. They talked about Anita returning to school once the kids were a bit older. They talked about taking a trip to Europe for their fifteenth anniversary. Anita mentioned Greece (she’d never told Allen about Costas, however); he wanted to see Italy. That trip never happened, either, because by then they were miserable and talking about separation and of course, unbeknownst to her, he was already making trips to New York to see Jennifer.

What had happened? What could she say now, these many years later? Looking back, she’d been very content for a long time. She’d throw herself into motherhood and knew, even as it was happening, that the kids’ early years would be the happiest of her life. She thought her marriage went through the same growing pains, the same peaks and valleys, of any other marriage. She supported Allen’s endeavors and tried to take care of everything else. They had good sex, they seemed to have reliable communication, the same general goals. She kept herself in good shape, well-groomed.

Oh, what am I doing? she thought. Taking that same road to nowhere. She made a deliberate turn and from some back alley of her mind, brought forward something her mother had said, one of those many weekends when Anita would call after the kids had gone to bed. Maybe she’d been packing more of Allen’s things into boxes or had found something else incriminating amongst his new silk-blend business shirts, maybe she’d woken up, drenched in sweat, straining under the burden of the house, the car, upcoming birthdays, the psychological adjustment of two adolescents, the inevitability of dying alone—whatever it was, she’d called her mom, yet again, for support. And her mother, who had raised three children with the help of what sometimes seemed to be the world’s last, truly good man, said: “Honey, this is not your failing, something lacking in you. You’re up late worrying now, but at some point it will be Allen, lying in his bed and staring at the ceiling, wondering what was lacking in him, wondering what he’s done. I can promise you that.”

Anita wondered about this, whether Allen had moments of insomnia, moments of regret, and with this wondering came complicated emotions. She appreciated the sentiment of the first part of her mother’s reassuring—that nothing was missing in her—but the latter part brought her no ease, because she had loved her husband and probably still did. The thought of his suffering brought her no joy, no relief. And all of it, at times, felt like somebody else’s story from long, long ago, a closed chapter, a dream, another life in a fictional time, not unlike that summer in Greece, when she was twenty years old and everything was shiny and vivid and new, and Anita had lived only for herself.

***

Peter

Peter heard noise from within his mother’s condo and when he turned the knob, the door was unlocked. He stepped inside. “Hello?”

Pearl appeared at the opening to the living room. “Hey, what are you doing here?”

He took a breath, waited for a moment to respond. It was something the counselor had suggested, this slight pause when he felt impatient, or annoyed. “I said I’d reschedule my meeting so you wouldn’t have to miss your—what was it?”

She put her hands on her hips. “It was a food drive I was supposed to oversee but remember—I said I had the dates wrong after all? Well, anyway, you’re here now. Do you want water? Not much else in the fridge.”

Her short skirt made a swishing sound as she walked, and her bright green blouse had come untucked a bit in the back. Peter followed her to the kitchen, nodding a hello to the man kneeled on the living room carpet, fiddling with the television.

“I still don’t understand why they couldn’t put this off until next week,” he said, motioning to the man.

Pearl creased her eyebrows, gave him a signal to be quiet. She had always been over-sensitive about people’s feelings. “They’re replacing everyone’s cable boxes,” she said. “Better to do it all at once, I guess. They said something about the liability of coming in here without someone home.” She handed him a bottled water and sat down at the dining room table. “You’re a lawyer, you should know something about that.”

When they were young, they’d always sat at the same seats at this table. Their mother at the end closest to the kitchen, his father at the other, Pearl to his father’s left, Peter to his right. Peter sat down in the closest chair, across the table from Pearl; they had both assumed their parents’ places. “Have you talked to her?” he asked. “Is she still coming back next week?”

Pearl spread her fingers on the table’s dark surface. “As far as I know. She said her flight is a week from Wednesday.”

Peter shook his head, tried to wait a beat before talking. “Three weeks in Greece. Must be nice.”

“I hope it is. About time she did something for herself.”

He took a drink of water and when he set the bottle down, a few drops spurted out. “She does all right, I’d say. Buys whatever she wants.”

“You’re worried about the money she’s spending? It’s hers.”

“No.” He looked at Pearl, who was shorter and plumper, and had her dark hair cut short and tucked behind each ear and still, somehow, managed to look like their flaxen-haired mother. They had the same blue, searching eyes.

“Then what?” she asked.

“It’s just irresponsible, running off by herself like that. An older woman, traveling alone.”

Pearl’s eyes widened but she didn’t speak.

“What would she do in an emergency?” he asked.

“Like what?”

“I don’t know.” He picked up the water bottle again; it made a crunching sound. “Something medical. What if she runs out of cash?”

“She’d go to a hospital, a bank.”

“This doesn’t bother you?”

Pearl shrugged. She looked into the kitchen then back at him. “I miss her, but I’m glad she went. Sure, I was upset at first, when we didn’t know what had happened.”

“You were hysterical,” he said.

“Not quite.”

The cable repairman stood up and cleared his throat. “All done here, Ma’am.” He glanced at Peter. “Sorry for the inconvenience.”

“It’s no problem at all,” Pearl said, smiling. She walked him all the way to the door.

Peter looked at his watch, remembered he was supposed to pick up Reese from football while Tanya saw a movie with her friend.

Pearl reappeared at the table. “Peter,” she said, deliberating.

“What?”

“There are things you don’t know about Mom, things I didn’t know.”

His jaw clenched; something cracked painfully. “What’s that supposed to mean?” he said. “For God’s sake, Pearl, don’t get all dramatic on me. I’ve had a long day already, a long week actually. If you’ve got something to tell me, just tell me.” Take a breath, he told himself.

She crossed her arms over the bright, green shirt. “I’m only responding to your attitude. What is with your attitude anyway? Can’t Mom have something for herself, do something for herself?”

“What are these ‘things I don’t know?’”

“She’s more capable than you think,” she said. “That’s all.”

He thought about the times his mother consulted him about household matters, after his father had left. Should they paint the exterior of the house or put it off another year? Could he climb up to the attic and get down the holiday items? Could he drive her to this appointment or that store? Had he talked to his father? Should they have the grass seeded again? He was fifteen!

“You don’t have to worry,” Pearl said. “She’s been to that island before.”

“What do you mean, to Greece?”

She grinned. She was enjoying not telling him.

“With Dad?” he asked. “I don’t remember—“

“No,” Pearl said. “Before they were married.” Her eyes sparkled. “She went one summer, when she was young. She met a boy there, well, a young man.”

Peter stood up and the chair squealed along the tiles. He didn’t have the patience for the women in his life, he really didn’t. “Are you going to get her at the airport, or should I? Let’s get it straight this time.”

“Aren’t you curious at all?”

“About what, Mom’s summer romance fifty years ago?”

“Yes.”

He looked around the condo, plain and sparse. It was like she never really embraced moving here, hadn’t made it cozy or her own. He wondered if his mother was unhappy, and if so, why they hadn’t noticed. He sat back down. “Was she going to meet that guy, is that it?”

Pearl shrugged. “I don’t know. She doesn’t know that I know about it. That earlier trip, I mean.”

Peter tried to imagine his mother sitting at some Greek café with an elderly man, leaning over glasses of wine or cups of coffee. In a flash, he imagined his wife Tanya in the same situation, face lit by candlelight, dining with another man. He couldn’t let that happen. He wouldn’t.

“Maybe this move was rougher on her than we thought,” Pearl said. “We had so many memories at the house. These big changes can be hard for anyone. I don’t want to see her upset again. I couldn’t take that.”

Peter saw the place now, the hospital room with its white walls and beeping machines. She’d had a surgery, he remembered, something with her wrist. She’d taken the pain pills for too long. Too many at once. A mistake anyone could make, she said, and their father had agreed. She came home after a couple of days and was the same as she’d ever been, maybe better. It was a mistake, he’d always known that.

He stood up again, this time more carefully so the chair wouldn’t make noise. “If you could get her from the airport, that would be great. It’s our anniversary next week and well, work is crazy right now.”

“Sure.” She followed him to the door as she had the repairman.

They exchanged a hug and Peter stepped into the bright sunlight. “Thanks,” he said.

Pearl nodded, framed in the door of their mother’s home, one hand still on the knob. “No problem. Oh, and Peter? Give the boys a hug from their auntie and enjoy your anniversary, okay?”

But Peter was already halfway to his car, so he raised his hand, a sort of farewell and acknowledgement in one and as usual, much too small of a gesture for the occasion.

***

Anita

She’d been in Euboea for two weeks—one week at the luxurious hotel, then another at the more reasonably priced room she’d found down a side street next to a café where she had lunch almost every day. The new room was smaller and lacked the space of the first one, but it had everything she needed, and she liked the way it was snuggled in between the homes and businesses of actual residents. She liked to wake up and hear the sounds of Greeks going about their normal, daily routines.

The café had the best, strong coffee she’d ever tasted. She ordered fruit and a pastry some days, a heartier breakfast of seasoned eggs on others. Some days, she slept in and grabbed a banana from a local fruit stand, then saved her appetite for a long, leisurely lunch. Each day, she walked the city, finding new corners, fresh views. She spent one hot afternoon in the local library, finishing the book she’d brought on the plane. Twice, she swam at a local beach, amongst the families and teenagers, the regulars with their deeply tanned skin. She took a boat tour, along the coastline until they marveled at the area’s highest peaks, the Xirón and Teléthrion Mountains, both craggy and majestic against the blue sky. She wore headphones set to English and heard all about the wars, trade, and broken alliances throughout centuries. She may have nodded off.

Sometimes, she thought she could live this way forever. She wasn’t accountable to anyone, except for the phone calls from Pearl every few days, and she liked the thought of an empty calendar, the days spread out before her to fill however she chose. She had walked by the house where Costas lived in 1975. She had walked by it many times, in fact, at different times of the day. But she had never mustered the courage to knock. Yesterday, after a lunch of thinly sliced lamb over a bed of lettuce and a tall glass of the local soda she loved, she had walked down that now-familiar street and had watched while a young woman herded three red-haired children down the steps and onto the sidewalk where she and Costas had said their tearful goodbyes. A man, obviously the children’s father, came out and waved as they bounced down the street, calling back to him and being pulled in starts and fits by their mother. So this young family now lived in the house where Anita had spent so much time, that summer long ago, and there would be no way to catch a glimpse of her pen pal, or to talk to him. Is that what she had planned? She wasn’t sure. But now that the possibility of whatever she had been thinking was gone, a minor depression set in.

At the library, she had looked through the phone books but, for the life of her, could not remember the name of Costas’ father. His mother’s name was Yvonne, but there was no listing for her, or for Costas. Their surname was a quite popular one, and there were four listings with the initial C and the name, but when she thought about tracking down each of those addresses, she began to feel quite foolish. What exactly was the point? Like her, Costas had probably married and had children. He had always wanted to leave the island, so the chances he’d done so were fairly high. Even if he was still in Euboea, he probably wanted to enjoy his senior years without disturbance; certainly, he’d never followed up on visiting her in California and hadn’t really kept in touch after that summer.

It was a Tuesday morning in the year 2017, and she was Anita Mullen, formerly Anita Bresler, and she lived in Cerritos, California, in a condo her daughter had found for her. She was a subscriber to the local performing arts center and had a regular, monthly book club. Her two children lived nearby and her grandsons were sources of endless pride. She liked to read and take long walks. Her parents were both gone. Her ex-husband lived in Idaho. His hair was thinning and he had rheumatoid arthritis. She had loved being a mother, and when the kids got older, she had worked for many years doing secretarial tasks at a local non-profit that supported orphanages in Mexico. Her daughter, Pearl, had also had a series of jobs in the charitable sector. Her son was a successful attorney and his wife was able to stay home, as Anita had done, to take care of their children. Anita volunteered at her church, in the office, on Mondays. Her close circle of friends, some of them widowed now or still linked to husbands who didn’t want to do much, liked to meet for dinners or concerts or plays. Your cultural crew, Pearl called them. She had this life, Anita knew. And yet, here she was, pretending to be a local of this sunny island in Greece, sipping coffee as the morning broke into day, watching people walk by as she stayed and stayed and stayed.

After seeing the young family at Costas’s former house, Anita had booked her return flight. One week from tomorrow, she thought. It seemed, at once, like a richness of days and at the same time, not nearly enough. After she bought the ticket, she had even had a phone call from Peter, explaining that he was taking Tanya on a surprise trip to Catalina Island for their anniversary and wouldn’t be able to pick her up. He’d see her a few days after her return, he said. Anita had been touched by his call and gladdened that he’d finally agreed to take some time off work. In many ways, he was his sister’s opposite. Pearl, who tended to act on her feelings much more than was practical. But who was Anita to judge, remaining indulgently in Greece, on a whim, on a prayer?

She finished the last of the good, strong coffee and picked up her shawl. It was blue and green and beaded with iridescent bits, and Anita had bought it from a woman with a cart near Negroponte Bridge. This was Euboea’s most famous spot, the unique drawbridge she remembered from her earlier trip. Here, the “mad waters” of the city churned and swirled, and the current changed direction every six hours. Tourists lined up along the banks to see this phenomenon, caused by the pull of the moon. Anita wrapped the shimmering material around her shoulders and stood up.

On the narrow sidewalk outside the café, a young man hurried past. Anita watched him. Tall, a head of dark hair—not remarkable here—but something about the set of his shoulders, the rhythm of his gait, struck a chord. When he turned to look into the café window, her heart stopped. She fumbled in her wallet for money and threw down the first bill she touched. Hurrying outside, she caught a glimpse of the young man as he rounded a corner. She followed for two blocks, as he adjusted his hair in the reflective glass of a butchery, as he waved to someone in a tailor shop, as he bounded up the steps to the door of a small, attached home just one street over from where Costas had lived. Because, of course Anita had chosen a hotel in proximity to this place, had sat at the café over and over hoping to see something, someone from that summer. This young man, perhaps still a teenager, obviously couldn’t be her old pen pal, but he reminded her so startlingly of him, his posture, his expression; he brought Costas to mind in the same way her grandson brought Allen forward—in stark relief, without warning.

The young, dark-haired man knocked on the door of the home and in a few moments, it opened. Anita stood across the street, leaning against the cool stone of a building, shielding her eyes from the afternoon sun. Too late, she’d realized she left her sunglasses at the café.

A figure appeared on the step, shadowed by the light coming in from the windows behind him. It was a man—that was apparent—and as he stepped outside, Anita recognized the slow, hesitant moves of someone older. The two embraced and the tenderness of the older man’s hand on the younger’s shoulder, the deference in the young man’s bowed head—this wordless but apparent bond struck a familiar chord in Anita. The younger man stepped aside and the older—probably his grandfather, she realized—raised his eyes and looked directly at Anita. After a few moments, he lowered his head and went back inside.

Anita lingered in the street, enjoying the coolness of the wall against her back, listening to the sounds of cars, a multitude of voices, and sandaled feet slapping the hot concrete. And when she started walking again, in the direction of the café to retrieve her sunglasses, a small, contented smile lingered at the corners of her mouth.

***

Giorgos

He’d be late for his eye exam, that much was certain. He loved the boy, everyone knew that, but the boy could be lazy and forgetful, and he’d lost count how many times he’d told his daughter this.

I know, Papa, I know. He’s young, give him time.

When he was that age, he’d already completed his apprenticeship, after working up the nerve to stand up to his father.

He checked the clock again. If the boy came now, they’d have twenty minutes to walk over. They’d have to hurry a little, but the boy’s legs were strong and he was tall as his father had been, as Giorgos himself had been, in another life. Now he was shrinking and he had to remind himself to stand erect. He could take himself to the damn eye appointment if it wasn’t for the surgery. Now, he could barely see from one eye and it threw everything off.

There it was, a forceful, unhesitant knock. His heart warmed, despite his aggravation with the boy. When he opened the door, so opened his heart, even more. Because the boy was magnificent, all white teeth and broad shoulders, and wasn’t he a good boy for attending to his grandfather when he could be out chasing girls? Giorgos clapped the boy on his firm back, reached up to enfold him.

Before he turned back into the house, he noticed a woman standing across the street. Draped in a blue cloth, her eyes like two gems that he could tell, even at the distance and with his bad eye, were also blue. Her hair was blonde and fairly short. He looked at her and for a moment, he was back in Amsterdam, those months he went to study his craft, those nights with Elise, a blonde waitress with plans to enter the royal army when she turned nineteen. The colors of the city swam before him—the red and blue bicycles, the garnet brick above green water, the white flag with its equal stripes of red, white and blue. The amber glasses of beer, the gray night skies, so full of dampness and promise, and so different from the vivid blue back home in Greece.

Giorgos turned back towards his house, chuckling a little to himself. Old man, he chided, those were good days but now, here you are. Get a hold of yourself. Carefully, he walked along the scuffed, wooden floor. In the kitchen, his grandson was looking for something to eat and he smiled again, listening to the vigorous sounds of the younger man’s foraging.

About the Author

Mary Vensel White

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