Six Intimacies: A Fiction
While looking out over the sea, I saw a woman swimming...
On the island, I woke up early every morning and after I woke up, I stretched and put on my clothes and drank one cup of strong coffee and then went for a walk. I kept my rucksack packed. After a few days, I tried to walk without picking a direction. If a breeze brought the scent of the sea, then I wandered towards the sea. If monks were praying, then I went in the direction of their prayers. More often than not I walked up country, following the twists and turns of cobbled alleys and tracks where the mules trooped. These alleys and streets went out from the port where everyone who came to the island arrived. Above the port, I stopped one morning at the estate of a long ago captain who had protected the island. The estate is a mixture of ruin and museum. There were tall pine trees, and I sat under the shade of the trees and on the lower steps that lead to the estate house. On the steps there were glass bowls filled with water. Other bowls sat empty. I was not there long when a man came by carrying a grocery sack full of cat food. Some of the food spilled out of the sack. He said kalimera to me then filled the empty bowls. Cats suddenly sprouted from behind the trees. The man nodded his approval at them. He then went up the steps towards the estate house and entered a door set in the walls. I had not noticed the door, and I did not see the man again. The cats fed and purred and rubbed their bodies against my legs. It felt good to be sitting there on the steps in the shade, with cats eating fresh kibble and rubbing their lean, scratchy bodies against my leg.
I could feel the heat at the edge of the shade that the pine trees made. This is when you realize a landscape is truly hot, when there is a difference between the shade and the exact spot where sunlight touches the ground. I could see the sea below the estate. This view of the sea somehow invoked a silence. I do not know how this happens. I do not know how looking from one scene to another can be the start of a story or how some streets can seemingly reach into us to retrieve a half-forgotten memory. I suppose it is a trick of the imagination. While looking out over the sea, I saw a woman swimming. She was in her sixties or seventies. I could not be sure. She swam alone, but the sea welcomed her, as though they were lovers. I could see their joy. To see an old woman making love to the sea is where a story begins. Locals say the captain had many lovers.
“It’s like we are living a different life.”
The couple sits at a table outside the café. They have a view of the sea, and a blue awning keeps them cool. There are other couples and families sitting at other tables. The couple shares what to them is exotic food. Dolmadakia. Souvlaki. Octopus. They tell each other stories with their hands, and when they are not telling stories, they hold hands. They hold hands under the table so that no one will see them doing this.
“Tell me more,” the young man says.
“The music. The sunlight. The air. It’s like we are living a different life.”
“We are living this life.”
“Yes. We are living this life, but you understand what I mean, or I think you do.”
“What do you mean?”
“You understand what I mean.”
“No, I don’t.”
“You do though.”
“This, in this moment, in this setting, is a life inside of our life, and outside of this, outside of the music and the sunlight and the sea and how everything looks and feels—”
“And tastes, this is the life we live, the actual life we live. You understand this.”
“I do. I understand it too well.”
She squeezes his hand, and he squeezes hers back.
“But let’s not talk about this. Let’s be here!”
“We are here,” he says.
He did not understand why he came to this restaurant, not in this season of so many tourists. All of them had heard, either from friends or a more generous local, that this restaurant was the best place to eat fish on the island. Indeed, he came here, like everyone else, for the plate of hot fish, the small fish, the gavros, the ones that were the best to eat on the island. He brought his notebook. He wanted to sketch the fish piled on the plate. He wanted to sketch the view of the sea and the umbrellas set up along the beach. He liked the restaurant. He liked the arabesque windows and a sense that the building had once been important, though it was necessary that it was no longer important. Now it was a fish restaurant where tourists ate during the season.
He sat at one of the long tables because the smaller tables beside the windows had all been taken by couples. The couples, he noticed, believed no one was watching them. He felt sure of this. He unpacked his notebook and began to sketch the bottle of oil on the table. When the group of women entered the restaurant, the waiter, whom he knew, had no choice but to sit them at the long table. As the waiter handed around the menus to the women, he and the waiter exchanged glances. These were attractive women, all of them. They smiled, almost apologetically, as they began to read the menus. Soon they were excited about the good selection of fish. They point at what they wanted to eat. They talked about what they had seen that morning on the island. As they talked, the color of their clothing brightened. The red lines of their red bikini tops became more red, bright red, like gloss. The white of loosely fitted shirts stood in contrast with the pale walls of the restaurant. The woman who sat next to him, the most attractive of these five or six women, sat confidently next to him. He continued to sketch in his notebook and noticed that the woman wore clean boat shoes and frayed denim shorts, blue and sun faded. Her legs were tan and muscular. Seeing such legs did not surprise him anymore. He came to the island often.
The waiter returned to the table and took their orders. Afterwards, the women, all except for the woman sitting next to him, got up to leave. They went outside. They wanted to take photos of themselves in front of the restaurant.
He sketched. He put more effort into his lines and shading, shifting his hands into positions he rarely used to sketch, but he could feel the woman watching him and looking at what he sketched. He did not need to do this extra. He then noticed three tiny birds in different stages of flight tattooed on the woman’s neck. The birds soared behind her ear into a wisp of hair.
“What are you drawing?”
“It is a sketch.”
“Yes, but what are you sketching?”
“The bottle of oil. I might sketch the cups or the plates. I don’t know. Whatever is close.”
“It is very nice. What you have sketched is very nice.”
She touched his arm, pressing it to look more closely at the drawing.
“You do not have to say thank you,” she said.
“Yes, but I do say thank you. It might be the only compliment I receive today.”
“Do you usually speak so dramatically?”
He laughed. “Yes.”
“Good. I like your drawing even more.”
She leaned closer to him to watch him draw.
He asked her, “Do your birds have names?”
“Yes. The birds on your neck.”
“Ah! Yes. They do.”
“What are their names?”
“That is my secret.”
He went on sketching.
“Why did you not go out with your friends?”
“Because I saw you drawing.”
“Do you draw too?”
“Maybe sometimes, but no.”
“What is your dream?” he asked her.
“Is this your dramatic way of speaking?”
“My dream? I did not dream last night.”
“Not the dream you had last night, not any night. What is your dream?”
“Do you mean what do I hope for?”
“If you like.”
“My dream is to open a place like this.”
“Your dream is open a fish restaurant?”
“A place like this.”
“This is a fish restaurant.”
“Yes, but it is also a place where people meet. Where lovers can meet, like the couples beside the window.”
“That’s reason enough.”
“Where someone like you comes to sketch.”
“Where lovers tell each other their dreams?”
The other women returned from having taken photos of themselves outside the restaurant. They had not stop talking. They did not stop talking when they sat down again. She shifted her foot to brace against his, as an assurance of her being there with him and his drawing and not in their conversation. The others could not see this.
At the end of the beach, past the last umbrella and where the shore curved into deeper water and where the sea taxis came to drop off or collect tourists, there was a concrete slab that functioned as a pier. From a distance, the slab looked like a straight line between the sea and land. This same slab was also where people could dive into the sea without danger. No heads were smashed or bodies paralyzed. Even though the water was safe and the depth was safe, people dared each other to dive. He was young then, in his teens, and he wanted to impress everyone, though especially the girls. Of the many girls who came to the beach there was one he wanted to impress most. They had met the previous day. She was French, though she went to school in London. They had one conversation, and she had told him that she liked to read about deserts. She wanted to learn about peoples who lived in the great deserts of the world—the Sahara, the Gobi, the Kalahari, the Syrian. Although she studied deserts, her father wanted her to study economics. In the end, she would not have a choice. She would study economics, but she would always love deserts and, if necessary, keep her love for them a secret.
“Why are you here?” he asked her.
“To swim. Like you.”
“Have you been here many times?”
“Yes. My father likes it here. And you? Have you been here many times?”
“A few times.”
“How many is a few?”
“Three or four.”
“That’s not very many.”
“No. It’s a few.”
She smiled at this.
He smiled back at her and then dove from the slab into the water. He came up and she smiled again and watched him.
“Your turn!” he called.
“I don’t dive!”.
“You can jump!”
She looked at where the boy bobbed in the water. “I will jump,” she said. She stepped close to the edge of the slab and pinched her nose and jumped into the sea. She came up quickly but not in a rush, not afraid. The sun shone on her face. Water ran over her shoulders and arms. She wiped the water from her eyes and squinted at the boy.
What the boy could see but not yet understand was how the girl reduced his vision. Everything and everyone vanished but for the girl and the sea. It was like knowing he was inside a dream. She swam closer to him. The bluest water and sunlight colored every frame of his vision, and the girl kept swimming closer to him and into a moment that he knew would be an eternity. Their legs touched.
“The water is perfect,” she said.
They treaded water close enough together that their hands touched. Their legs kept touching. The utter nudity of touch. The shock of it. A liquid given form.
He reached out and passed a length of hair behind her ear. His hand hesitated a second in that threshold below her ear, where her jaw line began. She took his hand and held it. She then bit and kissed the web between his thumb and forefinger. Liquid and light. Salt and light. A single breath.
He could not decide if he was surprised to see her at the café. It was the café where locals went early to drink coffee and to gossip. She ate from a white bowl filled with fruit. Her companion, a man dressed in a paisley dinner jacket, talked almost nonstop. She took a bite of fruit. She chewed carefully, even thoughtfully, then picked up her coffee cup with both hands, blew over the rim, and sipped. She did not break eye contact with the man. She was beautiful with her listening.
He was not sure when it happened, but she saw him watching her. He tried to pretend that he was looking past her, but there was no point in this. She saw him. The man across from her, the man who could not stop talking, did not see this exchange. His eyes did not find her eyes. They found his plate. They found his cup. They found people sitting nearby. They found his thoughts. But they did not find her eyes. They were not lovers. This was obvious.
He decided that the man who could not stop talking was her client. She was an art dealer. He had discovered this the night previous. They had attended the same opening for an exhibition called Water Babies. The exhibition took place at a luxury hotel on the other side of the island. Outside the hotel enough candles had been lit so that people could see each other face to face without additional lights. The show was bland, despite the best efforts of the artists and the hotel to make the work seem interesting. Ejaculating sea urchins and goblins were not interesting. He had wondered what it suggested about the quality of the art when the dealer was more attractive than the work. Did she recognize this? It would not matter to her.
He was staring at a painting when she approached him. The painting was of an octopus wrapped around a Brillo box.
“What do you think of the painting?”
“It’s not very original, is it?” He blushed. “But I like this color of blue here.” He pointed to a small area in the corner of the painting.
“Yes. I like that bit too.”
She stepped closer to him. He could smell her perfume, citrus and rose and something extra he could not identify. She leaned closer to the painting. Her shoulder touched his chest.
“This spot here? This is not the whole painting.”
“No. Not remotely,” he smiled.
“Maybe it should have been.”
He laughed. “Are you allowed to say that?”
“Maybe not.” She shrugged. “But I can say this to you.”
He could not remember how they separated or who was the first to turn and go. The rest of the evening she escorted individuals, mostly men who were smartly dressed, to look at the octopus painting, the goblins, the ejaculate, though they still noticed each other, this man and this woman. When does a look become desire? It is when you are convinced you can feel the body of the other person. You can feel that person pressed against you, giving attention to your hands and where they are positioned, how they accidently brush against each other and how they are encouraged to find more. It is when you can feel the breath of the other person on your shoulder, even when they are not standing close to you.
The morning was hot enough to make it feel hurried. People hurried to where the ferries landed, pulling their suitcases and beaming alongside whoever hurried with them. They were anxious about everything, excited for their time on the island and for the ferry to arrive. They moved like flocks of strange birds. Hats and sunglasses. Short skirts and swimming trunks. Clean white shirts. As they hurried, you could see and sometimes hear the stories about swimming, about dancing, recalling the curious boys and girls, the men and women whom they met. These were stories they could not wait to tell and later to tell again. Between these waves of crowds, the man and the woman turned their glances into looks, yet they could not approach each other. But this is a tiny island. They both knew this. Everyone eventually crosses the same paths.
Perhaps it was the light that caused such dreaming. It was the sea. Where else has a goddess risen from the sea in a spray of foam?
No one can say when people first came to the island. Figurines and carvings have been discovered, and some of them are over 3,000 years old. We can believe the sea and light have not changed. The Sun commands the Earth, as it has from its beginning, and somewhere near the sea a man carves a woman from stone, a woman compact enough to hold in his hand. He carves and works her, rubbing her with his thumb as he shapes her into an eternity. Large breasts, fertile, surely a goddess. She is what his heart could give, an offering, what he could make but not make real.
She understood herself as being alone, and she stood alone on the balcony of the unremarkable room she had rented. She had rented the room for an indefinite period of time. She stood on the balcony until a steady breeze from the sea had cooled her. She then wrapped a sweater around her shoulders and went inside the apartment. She could smell the coffee she had brewed earlier. She saw her plate and the bits of leftovers and a wine glass sitting on the table. The wine had been delicious. She bought it from a grocer whose business was only two blocks from her apartment. The grocer sold the wine in plastic jugs. When she asked him where the delicious wine came from, he pointed to the grapes growing on the arbor fronting the entrance of his shop.
“It comes from me” he said. “And from these grapes.”
This was perfect.
She walked past the table and stood in front of the living room widow. The shutters were open to cool the room. From the window, she could see the harbor and the boat lights bobbing up and down with the pulse of the water. She could hear people moving about the streets. She could hear their sandals slapping on the cobble. She liked the sound. She liked seeing, too, the old people who went in pairs, holding onto each other, extending to each other their affection. She liked seeing inebrious, happy young people in groups. Their energy filled her with memories of her own youth but also with hope or something close to hope. She loved all of them. She loved them as she loved the old couples. She loved the old couples as she loved or tried to love everyone. Love was sacred. It did not come from within her. It inhabited her. But in her heart was a secret, a secret she no longer confessed to lovers. The secret was that in spite of her loneliness, she thrived at being alone. Her love for things and for people of the world was greater than her loneliness. Because of this, she did not feel neglected or in need. It broke men to hear this. It broke even those men who imagined her, imagined her body, as their conquest. It broke men who believed they had found someone who might redeem them—redeem them from loneliness, redeem them from unhappiness, redeem them from regrets of what they did not or could not accomplish in their lives. She could listen to their regrets, their remorse, their losses, but she could not redeem. Least of all, she could not redeem men from their imaginations. She thought of a particular boy she had loved, whom she continued to love. This boy could not separate imagination from love. He confused them. He may have believed they came from the same source. Perhaps they were from the same source, she considered, but love, she decided, is directed towards the other. Imagination is directed towards the self. This is the difference in seeing and being seen.
What were lovers anymore? A color. A season. A touch. Yes, certainly a touch. She wanted to be touched. She wanted to be seen. She wanted, if nothing else, to feel the possibility of being touched, of also being loved. She believed the best of her lovers were, anymore, something closer to stories. And like stories, the memory of a lover could return with a word. Her desire, every day, was to see a story. The story, for instance, of someone looking into the eyes of someone else. The story of a lemon tree. The story of a pomegranate. The story of a window. That afternoon, while walking between two villages on the island, she was greeted by an old man. He sat on a bench that overlooked the sea. He said kalimera to her, and as he spoke, he waved his arm in the direction of the sea, desiring her, as she understood, to see the splendor of the water and the shape of other islands.
Earlier that morning, the butcher had taught her the word for lamb.
“Arnaki,” he said.
The butcher nodded. “Arnaki is good to eat!” he used his best English. Going back to the apartment, she stopped at her favorite grocer in town, not because she needed anything to eat or more supplies, but because she liked the young woman who ran the shop. She talked with the young woman about her day. The young woman shared her desire to swim at least once a day, no matter how busy the shop became. She talked about what it was like to be out with friends along the port after dark. After dark was when tourists wore their best clothes. They wished to look handsome for each other, to look handsome for the village, to look handsome for the sea. “In the winter they would all be gone,” the young woman said. “All the tourists would all be gone. The streets then will be more beautiful in a quiet way.”
These encounters—learning another word for lamb, visiting with the young woman who ran the grocery shop, an old man inviting her to admire the sea—these were everyday encounters. They were the ordinary parts of an ordinary day on the island.
The lights along the port and throughout the village invited a kind of peace. But was this happiness? She wondered. You could gather in people to love and who you needed to be loved by in return, but she could not say this was happiness. How much could happiness mean in a life? She thought again of the one boy, while outside her window and on the street below, people went about, strolling arm and arm, holding hands. A few people were alone. She could see in some of the faces of those who were alone visions of another port or another island. Sometimes someone was absent from their faces. Then she imagined herself standing in this window and what she might have looked like to people walking on streets, to people who saw her. And without turning around, she could see the shadows of the room. She could see lights along the port and in the windows of other rooms. She could hear the workers, all of them men, drinking coffee early in the morning, the scraping of their cups and chairs as they met. She could see the face of the boy who had asked her to dance at Apokries. She could hear the goat bells at night and the sound just before dark of mules clopping up the streets. She could hear someone’s talking and someone waiting to speak. The talk of old men who greeted each other. To see, to hear, to bear witness, was this love?
She stood in the window long enough to know how she would sleep. Her room was filled with the invisible now but not darkness, not darkness. This was her certainty and her release.
I do not know what caused me to leave the estate, if anything. The heat had pushed into the shade. Two men from the house across the lane came outside and started chatting about what repairs the house needed. One of the men pointed at the roof, then pointed at a corner. The other man stood next to him, listening as the other man pointed. Something had changed in the estate. There is a magic hour for every street, for every estate, for every ruin, for every landscape, but then that hour passes. He stood up and stretched and looked back at the estate. The museum doors would be unlocked soon. Women in blue skirts and white blouses would appear. Each one of them would carry an overly stuffed tote bag in the bend of an elbow.
I took the gravel path that followed the outer wall of the captain’s estate. The wall was imposing, standing over four meters. There was a couple at the far end of the wall. They held a phone between them. They looked at the phone and back at each other and back at the phone. Then they decided to walk uphill, traveling towards the main village. I felt glad. I did not want to be near anyone. I am often like this. This is why I explore city streets and villages early in the morning. I want to go through them before they are consumed by people who do not give them attention. Continuing along the wall, I wonder what worlds once existed behind them. It is easy to imagine such things in this country. We are asked to imagine them. What music did the captain and his family listen to? Did he find hours alone to contemplate the sea or a certain olive tree that grows behind these walls? I am told he and his family slept outside half the year behind these walls. Still I hope the captain had some room or an apartment where he could go, a location only he knew, where some other life or a past might have been nurtured in him.
A foot path wandered from the main path, and I could see that it led to the sea and a cluster of houses and tavernas. The path cut between another bench of pine trees. I want to know if it stayed cool in the shade. It is smart to remember where to find shade on a hot island. I take the path between the trees and trek downhill, taking my time. Settings like this, like some rooms, warm my memory. Soon I am standing in the shade of cottonwoods that thrived along a creek where I fished as a boy. There was a time when I wanted to imagine myself as someone more than who I am. As though I could read rare languages, speak the names of remote tribes, or travel by ships to other ports and villages that do not exist on common maps.
Above the sea I stop on a low wall that runs flush with a cobbled path that traverses the island from the main port to a harbor where local fishermen keep their boats. There is a breeze coming off the sea. I take a deep breath and release it and try to be here, only here. The sun reflects off the white walls ahead of me. One building is a taverna whose hours are scribbled on a chalk board beside the front door. The other buildings are homes and guest houses. Most of the shutters are closed, holding in the last of last night’s cool. A few people are touring. A mule team travels along the path, hauling supplies to tavernas and distant shops. The sea, like all wonders, looks almost unreal. I search, but I do not see the old woman swimming. Maybe she did not desire to be seen. Maybe she desired to swim early and before the tourists were out, before the visitors sleeping in the guest houses were awake. She desired to swim alone, to take in the sea and the newness of the morning. She wanted to be alone. She wanted to swim and to experience the joy of swimming and of the sun hot on her skin. No one needed an explanation for her desires, for her wants.
I did not notice the statue while trekking down from the estate, but off to my right and uphill in a cushion of stone is the statue of the boy on the dolphin. That I had not noticed the statue surprised me. There is a bronze plaque attached to the sculpture that reads in Greek, “The boy and the dolphin.” This was the boy Asclepius, the wounded healer of the ancient Greeks, the god of medicine and cures. As the statue is positioned, the dolphin appears to dive towards the sea. The boy has his arms cast behind him, readying himself for the plunge he and the dolphin will soon make. Part of me wants to hear them speak, though knowing, as I must know, they will never do so. I have desired this of statues before, to hear them speak, to hear what stories they might tell. This is a conceited desire, though perhaps no more so than having once wanted farmers, old bums, and misanthropes to tell their stories.
Since no one is around, I scramble up to the statue and sit on the retaining wall. The wall encases three sides of the statue. I sit on one of the corners facing the sea. I realize this is what the boy on the dolphin can see. The sea glazed with sunlight. The mountains of the Peloponnese and thrones among the gods. But what of their suffering? I ask myself this. What of their joy? Of flesh, I mean, not stone.
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Damon Falke is the author of, among other works, The Scent of a Thousand Rains, Now at the Uncertain Hour, By Way of Passing, and Koppmoll (film). He lives in northern Norway.