Sweet Nothings of a Foreign Exchange

She picks up her bag and walks away from the café by the port where Kevin is lost in a four-hundred-page philosophical tome. Elena does not look back. She knows not to disturb him and that she has a few hours to clear her head from his scolding glances and indifferent responses. She can feel her scalp burning despite a wide-brimmed straw hat hiding her golden locks. It is almost noon under a blazing Mediterranean sun. She follows the long winding road hugging the hillside dotted with old stone houses from wealthier seafaring days. To her right, the cerulean sea with its glimmering ripples calls out to her. Elena takes the narrow path all the way down to the little diving platform, careful not to get cut by the prickly stems of thistle. Any sense of momentary relief from a sudden light breeze is quickly followed by a rush of annoyance at the sight of a young couple’s embrace.

“Looks like I’ll have to share my spot with them today,” she mutters to herself as she removes her beach towel from an oversized purple straw bag and searches for the bottle of SPF 30 that she remembers she left on the chair next to Kevin. “I’ll just have to bear this, like everything else.” Her thoughts interrupted by the entwined figures next to her taunting her peripheral vision. Any attempt to ignore them seems futile. She finds herself surrendering to each slow movement and whisper behind her – sweet nothings. Italian. It is August after all when Italians descend upon the Greek Isles like monarch butterflies migrating to the fir trees of Mexico.

Elena tilts her head sideways and with squinting eyes takes in the glorious sight of bronzed limbs and dark hair. She can sense the rapid rhythm of her heart as her eyes linger on the young woman’s raven hair and bee-stung lips. For a split second, it seems as if their eyes meet. Elena dodges any perceived glance, swearing she can hear echoing laughter. Closing her lids and breathing deeply, she feels her body rising and imagines floating over the deep blue expanse as if summoned by a Siren’s call, only to be interrupted by the neighbor’s deafening happiness.

“Excuse me, Miss, excuse me, would you like…” the young woman’s heavily tattooed, statuesque companion is standing right over Elena now, lotion in hand. Elena quickly pushes herself up to a sitting position. He kneels beside her and with a soft effeminate voice adds “The sun is strong today. You are quite red. May I?” while pointing to her arms and back. Taking Elena’s awkward smile as a yes, he begins. She closes her eyes wondering if she is making all of this up in her head. Given her proclivity for vivid imagery, which at some later point will be painted on to a large canvas in her shoebox Brooklyn studio, this is not out of character. Surrendering to the cooling balm applied with circular motions by soft yet sturdy hands, she leans in closer to him.

Scenes from last night come rushing in like a sudden Aegean storm. She imagines stepping out of her own body and observing herself like a passerby turned stalker from afar – Kevin leading her into a jewelry shop and then back out. She notices Elena from last night wearing a blue-stoned necklace he picked out for her; her face flushed the way it was when they met on their first Tinder date three years ago in that Spring Street bar with the dragon logo displayed prominently on the front door. She observes her own fingers skimming the blue stone, her face glowing with the hope that Kevin had somehow found his way back to that time in the very beginning when she was all that preoccupied his mind. She notices her hand reaching out to him in gratitude, searching for a smile. Kevin already steps ahead, all six feet three inches of him. She cannot catch up to him. Back at the inn, she sees her exhausted figure rendered minuscule by his silence, a retaliation of sorts for the rare act of gratitude bestowed on her earlier that night. Having no energy left for confrontation, she catches herself opening the closet door, pulling out a carry-on and throwing the necklace into the dark abyss.

“Are you ok Miss?” The young man’s voice startles her.

“Oh yes, sorry, yes I’m fine, thank you for the lotion. My name is Elena by the way,” she says while extending her arm out nervously for a handshake. He greets her instead with a warm lingering kiss on the cheek. She guiltily scans his female companion for any sign of discomfort and is relieved to find the girl waving at her encouragingly.

“Are you going for a dip?” he asks pointing his head towards the sea. Elena mulls it over for a quick second, then stands up, slips into her flip-flops, grabs her towel, hat, and bag and walks away.

“I’m sorry, I forgot something back home,” she bursts out without looking back. She hurries up the same steep path, this times scraping her left thigh. Ignoring the sting, she continues her ascent to the top where the paved road awaits. Kevin will be in the same spot where she left him. Still lost in a page, she presumes. Elena walks hurriedly into town, oblivious to the fact that her white linen dress is still in the bag. She is consumed with a sense of steadily rising certainty.

The port comes into view, greeting her with a cacophony of boat horn blasts, children’s’ screeches, donkeys’ braying and folk music mixed in with the standard top 40 from dueling side-by-side tavernas. Elena nears the café with the outdoor pink cushioned chairs, scanning the rows of back to back tables. Nothing. No blond hair, blue eyes within sight. She approaches the doorway leading to the dark interior, but it is blocked by the unexpected presence of a bald, apish-looking man.

“No swimsuits in here, Madam,” his loud reproach spoken in a harsh local dialect startles her into submission. Elena finds the harder she tries to pretend he is her equal, the more she cowers, albeit unwillingly. As if a scorned child seeking approval from her indifferent mother, she puts on her dress and asks his permission to use the restroom. He points to a sign “PAYING CUSTOMERS ONLY.” She places an order and heads towards the back. Crouching over the toilet, a suffocating stench of ammonia mixed in with urine overwhelms. Suddenly everything is spinning. It seems the heat has not been her friend today, and now this. She comes out of the torture chamber and quickly scans the room. Relieved to find the burly ape nowhere in sight, Elena makes her way over to the counter where an unrecognizable brand of bottled water was left for her to take. She opens it, takes a swig and places it back down, leaving no trace behind other than the empty bottle and two euros.

She feels her spirits rising, resuscitated breathing in the air outside tinged with sea salt from the bay beyond. She walks solidly making a sharp right down a narrow, whitewashed side street with postcard-perfect two-storied homes. She can see their inn in the distance, the one with the burnt orange doors and shutters, the only structure on the entire island without a trace of Cycladic blue. Her pulse synchs to a quickened pace as she steps into an interior courtyard with a black and white pebbled floor mosaic of a Medusa’s head. How Hellenic, she thinks. Dissecting the patio, a solitary olive tree – a lone remnant of the proprietor’s ancestral farm, she imagines. If she were not on a steadfast mission to climb the stairs up to her room, she would have collapsed in its fractured shade.

Upstairs, her fingers skim the figure 2 etched into the wooden door as she pauses for a second before pushing down the handle. Not surprisingly, he left it unlocked. She can almost hear him saying in his typical contrarian way “What is the worst thing that could happen, ease up will you?” His distant echo in her head. The scent of orange blossom greets her as she enters and closes the door behind her. There on the cast iron bed lies Kevin’s discernable nakedness. A sliver of afternoon light from shuttered windows is painted onto his resting limbs. His sunburnt paleness exposed as if to taunt her. All those interminable hours spent together, drifting skin on skin. Was there ever a time of continuous bliss or did it all somehow dissipate into the ether? What could I have foreseen? Scrambled thoughts in her head followed by another round of lightheadedness.

She steps forward closer to the unsuspecting figure and lies down at the foot of the bed, her eyes following his every inhale, every exhale. So peaceful. Should I now, or later? How can I? A vision of a conjured up eight-year-old Kevin appears before her, all tucked in and safe. Safe, there’s that word again. “You make me feel safe,” he once said to her. She found it odd, like something a child would say to his mother.

Elena will not wake him up just yet, even though there is a small part of her that craves for that millisecond when his beautiful blues open and search for her. She needs that point of reference. She recognizes her own need for the poetic, the sublime in everything. There was that time she and Kevin walked through Madison Square Park at dusk. She recalls catching a glimpse of the Clocktower, and there at that moment, she fell in love with that insentient object. She turned to Kevin and asked, “Is there a word for love of insentient objects?” No response. Either he did not hear or chose to ignore what must have sounded like more of her “inane musings,” as he came to coin them in his typical dismissive way.

She must have miscalculated her depleted reserves as sleep overtook her. Kevin’s nudges and the bright overhead lights startle her back to the present. “How long have I,” she struggles to find the right words as she yawns her way back.
“A couple of hours,” his short reply.

Elena tries to find her footing as she rises from the hard marble floor. She aches from a stiff lower back and the onset of a throbbing headache. Rubbing her temples for relief, she questions his act of kindness letting her sleep undisturbed. The sound of the shower running and with it a realization that something is passing her by. She needs warmth. Her DNA calls to her, her Hellenic roots tug at her. Warmth is what she craves most as visions of red flames and thick whirling black smoke pierce her to the core; the seeds of her next painting, a Cy Twombly lookalike from his Ilyrium series depicting Ancient Troy up in flames. She knows that just like her father knew each time her mother rejected his affection, she will never get it from this man. Perhaps Kevin’s mother shared in that grief each time his father chose the bottle over her. Chills run up and down Elena’s spine at the thought.

She senses that tonight Kevin is in one of his moods again. She lets him pick the restaurant this time. Kevin wants fish. He likes to order it whole, dissecting it in half and picking at each fine bone until all the lean white meat comes off. She watches him, then listens as he orders a bottle of Retsina. He stares at her for a second; she nods albeit knowing that her approval carries little weight in his final choice. Echoing laughter from a few tables overcomes at her like tightening hands squeezing her throat. She looks over, and there they are again – the Italian couple. Her heart begins to pound harder and harder still. She feels she cannot breathe.

“What’s wrong with you tonight?” Kevin asks.

“What do you mean?” She dares not look at him and shifts her gaze instead to her left taking in the sight of two figures sitting next to each other rather than across. Loud kissing, laughter, eating out of the same plate. Elena can no longer sit still. As if possessed by all twelve Hellenic gods at once, she stands up and walks over. She can hear Kevin’s inaudible questioning. This time she does not care.

“Hi, hi, remember me from earlier?” The statuesque Italian rises and kisses her once again on both cheeks. His girlfriend follows his lead. Before Elena has any chance to come up with another word, they pull up the chair across and welcome her to their feast of eggplant and garlic dips, grilled lamb chops and red wine. The Italian grabs an empty glass and pours her a generous portion.

“Is that your lover, Elena?” He asks looking over at a stunned Kevin. What a strange word to use, Elena thinks. Strange to think of Kevin that way now.

“Yes, that’s Kevin, my boyfriend.” The Italian and his young girlfriend yell out in unison “KEVIN,” motioning for him to join. Elena shrinks in her seat. She had not calculated how any of this would play out. There was no going back now. Kevin appears flustered grabbing the bottle of white wine and his glass and making his way over with an air of resistance. He cuts through Elena with a heavy look of something beyond mere disapproval, something more akin to scorn.

“Hi Kevin, I’m Antonio, and this is Lisa,” Antonio leans in to kiss Kevin in the typical Mediterranean way. Kevin pulls back and settles into his seat. The Italian shrugs his shoulders and sits back down, showing no signs of lingering perturbation. He lifts his glass – “Salute.” Elena mirrors the gesture as if to make up for Kevin’s lack of enthusiasm.

“What do you do Kevin?” Gorgeous Lisa asks, which seems to pique Kevin’s interest in an instant.

“Well, it’s a bit complicated, but basically I work with numbers, code mostly, for a technology investment firm back in New York.” Elena thinks she sees a glimmer of interest beyond the friendly in Kevin’s eyes, something she recognizes she once was the recipient of.

“Oh coooooooool,” gorgeous Lisa replies in one long drawn out over the top way, typical of free-spirited twenty-something-year-olds on vacation. Envy washes over Elena. She takes another deep breath, but she cannot seem to peel her own eyes from Lisa for long. She images Kevin wishing he was free, craving a night with her. Images of the photos Elena found on Kevin’s phone prior to this trip flash before her now. She had resisted searching up till recently, fearful of the truth she ran the risk of being confronted with. And sure enough, photos of random women in provocative poses he had screen-grabbed and saved on his phone for instant gratification upon demand. For days now her sleep interrupted with visions of sensual lips, half open in anticipation of almost certain ecstasy, and extended limbs rising into the corners of Kevin’s lustful mind. As much as she tries to shake it all off, she is restless knowing she cannot be enough for this man. She will never be able to sustain his attention for long. A woman knows such things even without the burden of this kind of tangible proof. Her sadness is suffocating. She takes another sip of red wine then turns her head to hide the onset of tears. Her insides are gnawing at her. She hears Kevin asking for the bill and excusing himself from the party. His voice a distant radio signal in her head. Something about seeing her back at the inn. She cannot discern whether absence is louder than silence, or perhaps it is one and the same.

Elena enters and is standing naked in the shower with him now. The soapy water is running off their bodies, spiraling down the rusted drain. She touches him. He turns away as expected. Droplets of water on his back form words from an obscure Tennessee Williams poem she once came across in New Orleans, something about eyes not being lucky –
The eyes are not lucky…
They seem to be hopelessly inclined to linger…
It is really hard to say if the dark is worse than their light
their discoveries better or worse
than not knowing

She senses a stab of pain coming from her left thigh. How easily one forgets walking past a prickly stem. Back home in the big city, she will open the box with the blue-stoned necklace. She will try it on one final time before parting with it.

Photo Credit: gak Flickr via Compfight cc

Effie Pasagiannis

Effie Pasagiannis is a first-generation Greek-American lawyer, writer and curator based in NYC. Her poetry has appeared in the Write Launch, Snapdragon Journal, the Platform Review and Pen + Brush's inaugural print publication "In Print." Effie has appeared as a featured poet at the Bowery Poetry Club, Arlo Hotels and the Assemblage. She is currently working on a collection of short stories with female protagonists at a crossroads of choice with life-altering consequences. As a curator, Effie organizes and hosts literary and art salons, where writers and artists collaborate and showcase their work in soul-nourishing spaces. She is an avid proponent of economic, educational, criminal justice, immigration and environmental reform, and often incorporates these causes and themes into her work.

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