The following is excerpted from Scorpionfish, reprinted here with permission of Tin House. Copyright © 2020 by Natalie Bakopoulos.
Scorpionfish – Chapter 3
I admit that I don’t always see the things people say about Athens—it’s dirty, it’s chaotic. Sometimes I’m not even sure what people are talking about. It’s a city. There’s traffic. If anything, people are always sweeping the sidewalks and washing the staircases. But after the sea that day, the freshness of the breakup and the sting of those photos, Athens felt like an assault, like all its violations were announcing themselves to me, questioning my decision to be there—the traffic stopped everywhere and people honking their horns, frustrated in their cars. Every car, it seemed, confined couples and lovers bickering over the route not taken; or sitting silently, the passenger staring at their phone and the driver at something ahead they could not see. I noticed all the boarded-up buildings, the closed businesses. I ducked down a side street and passed a young man in a blue-and-black flannel shirt rolling up his sleeve, his other friend watching, waiting. Sure, you might have run into a person strung out near Omonia, wandering around the Archaeological Museum, far before this new crisis. I distinctly remember Haroula telling me, when I was eighteen, in English, as if this could not be uttered in Greek: Watch out for junkies. Yet unless I was in a particular neighborhood at night, I never really noticed, but Nefeli, who seemed to absorb the shame of the entire nation, claimed people shot heroin on the streets the way Americans walked around with their giant cups of coffee. If my American friends had said something like this I would have bitten off their heads.
And wouldn’t this be the same in any city? But I admit, it was jarring against the backdrop of those grand neoclassical buildings, that architectural trilogy. And I admit I had my blind spots with this city, a city people either Orientalized or romanticized, two versions of the same sin. Even though it was the city of my birth, perhaps because of it, I was surely guilty of both. There’s no such thing as perfect vision, true, but how to rid oneself of blindness?
As I walked through the last of the traffic I was relieved to be walking alone, moving freely between the cars, up the sidewalks, through the park, and up along the side of Lykavittos, spared most of the mess.
Back at home, I went to my balcony. I think I was hoping to find the Captain, but his apartment was quiet. Around ten, I heard his key in the door and soon after I smelled cigarette smoke. I stepped out onto the balcony and waited until he registered my presence. A shift in his seat, a change in the air. Kalispera, Captain.
He returned the greeting. I heard the ice clink in his glass.
When I was a child my mother would pour her first drink immediately after her classes. She’d make me dinner and pick at something herself. My friends’ family dinners were an endless source of fascination. Mothers who ate at the table! Or my best friend’s mother, who always washed dishes while her husband and four girls ate; another lived only with her mother and brother, and after school her brother made us chocolate chip pancakes for dinner as he drank beer from a can. He was seventeen, usually shirtless. I loved him deeply.
“Were you close with your mother?” I asked.
“Very,” the Captain said, as if the forwardness of my question were routine, as if we’d always spoken this way.
“I’m fascinated by people’s mothers. But I was most comfortable in the houses where they felt invisible,” I said. “Or crazy.” As a young girl I had had the sense that it was my duty to take care of my mother, not the other way around.
I heard the Captain exhale. Shift in his chair.
“The nights my father was gone, playing bouzouki in Greektown, my mother watched television in the den and drank. Sometimes I confused her cries with those that came from ER on television. I would wander from my room, where I talked on my princess telephone to friends, and stand at the door like a sentry. Sometimes she realized I was there and the cries stopped, the bad dreams. Maybe drunken hallucinations. I don’t know. When my mother began sleeping in that room for good I told my child-self that she liked the television, which my father did not.”
Even then I had known the power and comfort of a good, solid lie.
“Those nights, when she stopped the bizarre mix of conversation and terror-stricken cries she’d have with herself, I was released from my duty. But I never went back to my bedroom. I’d fall asleep in the high-ceilinged living room, watching television—Saturday Night Live or a movie or those ridiculous nighttime soaps that I stupidly loved. In that large room I felt safe on the couch but terrified to move, to pass the den door, afraid my mother would stir from her drunkenness and say something unintelligible or mean. So I’d remain on the couch until my father returned from his nightclub and carried me up to my room.”
The smell of tobacco in his shirt pocket had signaled that I was off duty and could collapse into childhood again.
“My mother never got over leaving Greece,” I said. “She left for my father.” I know now my mother’s excitement for a new life, those last days in Athens, had been a manic state of denial. “Each visit back was painful to her, yet being away was even worse.”
“The scourge of the exile,” the Captain said. “Not being able to forget.”
“My mother existed in two places but lived nowhere, whereas my father existed in two places and lived everywhere.” I am sure my mother had moments of happiness in Chicago, but I don’t remember them. The closest I could remember was when she puttered around in her small rock garden in our yard, or sat in the early autumn sun, reading. On the island, things felt a little better, but I think she was always thinking of the moment she’d have to leave.
The Captain didn’t say anything, but I could feel him listening, as if he’d been listening to me for years. He did not ask many questions, and I liked him for this. It was not aloofness or disinterest. Something else. A sense of space, not distance. It occurred to me right at that moment that everything with my mother had been performance. But pain all the same.
My parents, and me by proxy, were not always aware of two worlds but were always aware of themselves from the perspective of the other one. It seemed that the traits of my personality were always viewed as a product of my Americanness, not my Miraness. For instance, I was nearly always on time. My parents’ sense of time, which I do not attribute to their Greekness but to something else, infuriated me as a child. I was late to school plays, to school, to birthday parties; I was often the last to be picked up. My father would begin lathering his face to shave at the time they were supposed to be at a dinner.
“What time is it there?” my parents would ask a relative when they spoke, as if the rules for time elsewhere moved forward of their own accord, that those eight hours were as arbitrary and changeable as my mother’s moods. The only time they kept sacred was the evening weather report, before which my father would angrily hush any conversation or noise, as if our quiet obedience would ensure the early arrival of spring, and the nightly Lucky Lotto drawings broadcast on WGN.
But their dual identities were clear. When in Greece, they saw things through American eyes, and when in America, through Greek eyes. My father flourished like this. He loved it, he fed off it, he became a larger version of himself. But my mother, I think it slowly killed her. She was displaced in Chicago, and when she was back in Greece she felt a more acute, sad kind of displacement. She didn’t exist fully formed in either place, and she slowly melted away.
Had I said all this out loud, or to myself? I was suddenly sleepy, but when I said goodnight to the Captain and fell into bed, sleep would not come. The bed felt hard, and I tossed and turned, my eyes wide open. But I must have slept eventually because I woke to the sound of a woman’s screams. First I lay there, unsure if I was dreaming. I suppose I’m still not certain—there is a small chance it was a dream, and for many consecutive nights in that apartment I’d awake completely confused. But even as I say as much, I feel my guilty conscience: I could no longer blame the disorientation of jet lag, or even a new space. And because of this I cannot shake the feeling of shame that accompanies this confession: lying in bed, unable to even move my arm to reach for the phone, sheer terror surrounded me as a woman screamed for help. I could have immediately dialed the police, I could have gone out to the balcony and called to her. Maybe even if I had made my presence known, the assailant would have run. Maybe she was with a lover, an episode of violence unfolding right in front of their home.
Her screams for help were clear and deliberate. Voítheia. Help. And they became more frantic, more terrified, more muffled. They were from a living body, they were not my imagination, but I could not move.
Finally, the silence released my limbs and I was able to tear myself out of the bed and onto the balcony. I called the police and explained to them where I was. I called out to her.
But I was too late. The night had swallowed her up.
The next night, I asked the Captain about the screams. Though he slept with his balcony doors open, he said he had not heard a thing. The ship made him a light sleeper, he added. Always ready for an emergency.
“You really heard nothing?” I asked.
“Not even the cats,” he said.
I wasn’t sure where the screams were coming from. Lykavittos? Near the stadium? Sometimes what sounded like music from a party in the next building was coming from the park that was a fifteen-minute walk away. But I know these are excuses that I make because of the helpless shame of lying in my bed, my shoulders pinned down by fear.
“Are you okay?” he asked, finally. “Mira?”
I realized sleep had taken hold in the chair and I’d been dreaming of driving around with large green-and-turquoise sea charts I could not read, trying to place one into my eye like a giant contact lens. I told him this.
He laughed, a deep, gentle laugh. “You remind me that I haven’t paid attention to my dreams. I’m probably having them but my sleep has felt blank.”
“That sounds wonderful. I’m often teaching in my dreams, about to lecture on a subject I know nothing about.”
He was quiet. I wasn’t used to talking to someone who didn’t interrupt each sentence. I continued. “Except suddenly I’m bartending, my boss complaining about the wrong drink, words spilling out of her glass, across the television screens while I fumble with a tiny lock on luggage, or try to dial a phone number.”
“Me, driving a car into the water and sinking; or worse, watching my kids drown and not being able to help them. Of water, of blindness, of rock.”
I was quiet, trying to imagine his kids. Twins.
“I’ve never told that to anyone,” he said.
“Terrifying.” The woman and her scream came back to me. But it had not been a dream. “So hard to explain.” I paused. “‘A dream cannot exist in words.’”
“From Maria Nephele,” I said.
“Elytis.” He seemed disappointed. Elytis bored him, he said. The sun, the sea, we get it. He spoke a bit more but I felt drowsy, suddenly sleepy.
Later, I woke draped with a white blanket that was not mine and a vague image of him handing the blanket to me, a quick glimpse of his face. I rose from my chair, went inside, and flopped down onto my bed, feeling an odd rush of euphoria.
Natalie Bakopoulos is the author of Scorpionfish (Tin House, 2020) and The Green Shore (Simon & Schuster, 2012), and her work has appeared in Tin House, the Iowa Review, the New York Times, Granta, Ploughshares, and The PEN/O. Henry Prize Stories. She’s an assistant professor of creative writing at Wayne State University in Detroit and a faculty member of the summer program Writing Workshops in Greece. She lives in Ann Arbor, Michigan.
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