For Thanksgiving, my grandmother rode a train all the way from California to Pennsylvania. My mother warned me about her wig.
“Whatever you do, don’t point it out. Don’t even look. Just pretend it isn’t there. Stare at her mouth if you have to. Watch it move. It’s actually soothing. Whenever I don’t want to make eye contact, I do it, and they never notice.”
Well, the first noticeable thing about her was the wig, standing out like a microwave in a museum. Just take Mom’s advice and pretend it isn’t there. Just focus on her smile and her eyes.
Dad had to work, so just Mom, Grandma and I had turkey in the dining room.
“Why did you ride a train?” I asked her. “Wouldn’t a plane get you here faster?”
“Oh, planes are dangerous, Dear, very dangerous. I might’ve crashed and burned somewhere in Kansas. Then you would’ve never met your Grandma.”
“Mama, you don’t know that.”
“Don’t tell me what I know and don’t know, young lady.”
“You’d have a better chance of getting in a car wreck.”
“Statistics have shown.”
They argued back and forth over physics and probabilities. Mom added on, and Grandma poured more wine into her glass, fueling the argument. By the third wine, Grandma’s sweet façade faded into bitter spite. “You go upstairs,” she told her, “and don’t you talk to your mother that way.”
When my mother wouldn’t, Grandma quit arguing for stories that my mother had heard since childhood, and when Grandma stumbled over specific facts and details, my mother would correct her and finish the stories herself.
“This is your last one, Mama,” she said, pouring her the glass before taking the bottle away, but Grandma tried to wrestle it from her.
“I’ll be through with it when I say I’m through with it.”
The red wine stained the white tablecloth. Mom took the bottle with her to the kitchen, and Grandma adjusted her wig. Just stare at your lap, pretend you didn’t notice.
The tryptophan kicked in. The dim light in the dining room added to the drowsiness. Grandma helped me to the couch and wrapped a blanket over me. The fireplace was falling asleep, too. The warm embers made my face tingly and heavy. Grandma pulled up a chair next to the couch and began telling me bedtime stories about Ancient Greece.
“What’s the big deal about being Greek?” I said.
“So you can understand yourself better. But first, I’ll explain why Greek women are so crazy.”
She explained Greek philosophers. One of them was Plato. His name had me think about that canned putty that I used to eat. But to avoid the confusion, the philosopher spelled his name differently.
“Psychology started in Ancient Greece,” she said, “but Plato didn’t know what to call it. He heard voices, and he washed his hands eleven times a day and checked his doors eleven times to make sure the locks were working. He didn’t know what a chemical imbalance was, so he came up with philosophy.”
Grandma said that the word psychology was invented in the late seventeenth century. “The Latins pillaged the Greek language. They fancied slapping two Greek words together and, voilà, making up whole new words. Real clever, those damn Latins.”
The Greek word psyche meant soul, mind, and spirit; logos meant reason. Aha. Any word ending in -ology meant to find reason. So psychology meant to find reason in the soul, the mind and the spirit. She set examples with Latin words such as etymology (the study of word origins), paleontology, ophthalmology and scatology (the study and reasoning of shit).
So Plato, one afternoon in Athens, thousands of years before Christ, stepped out of a pool hall for a cigarette.
This was in the red light district.
Once he lit up, a man name Hippocrates turned the corner and caught him puffing away.
“You there,” Hippocrates said, “put that thing out before you damage your kardia.”
The word kardia was Greek for heart, as in cardiology (the study of the heart).
Now, back in Ancient Greece, as she told it, Plato studied with another obsessive-compulsive philosopher, Aristotle. Together they thought up Poetry, Politics, and Philosophy. Only a diseased mind would’ve thought up Politics, Grandma said. “Democracy would’ve left nothing but cockroaches if it weren’t for Jimmy Carter. God bless the man. But then that rootin’ tootin’ cowboy acting motherfucker Reagan took over. Anyway, Plato, he got hysterical.”
“Sweetie, hysteria is a disease a woman gets when she isn’t satisfied. Do you ever notice when your mother is in a bad mood?”
“Yeah, every month.”
“You’re smart for your age. I wouldn’t have thought a ten-year-old could pick that up. And she’s in a bad mood at the same time every month, too, isn’t she?”
“I think so.”
“That’s because she’s worried that her womb will fall out.”
“What’s a womb?”
“Where you once lived. It looks like a sink. So picture a tiny sink falling out of your mother.”
“But wasn’t Plato a man?”
“He was, but he thought himself sick like a woman. Men don’t have to worry about little sinks.”
“Why don’t they have to worry about little sinks?”
Grandma wouldn’t answer that. She went on about Hippocrates. He was the father of medicine but also a notorious junkie. The people of Athens had caught him shooting up near the Parthenon.
“He was a hypocrite,” Grandma said, hence the reason people often related his name with the word hypocrisy. When Plato caught him in the alley, he called him out. “You shame me for smoking, but look at you. Here you are, shooting up.”
As the father of medicine and all, Hippocrates had one tall reputation, so he begged Plato to swear secrecy in what today is known as the Hippocratic Oath. Plato made the promise under one condition: if Hippocrates would let him patent his medicine. So now the word hypocrite is merely a homonym to Hippocrates.
A Little Bit Of Family History
My lineage must’ve begun in Ancient Greece. Otherwise sometime later, say in 5 AD, did a motherless warrior emerge out of nowhere and spread his seeds.
In World War II, Grandma’s husband fought for the United States Air Force. His mission was to gun down Nazis. I knew about them through a controversial Disney cartoon in which Donald Duck wore a rigid star-looking symbol on his sleeve. Grandma called it a swastika.
Those same Nazis uncovered the lost ark, and it melted their faces. They didn’t seem very bright, but evidently, they could fly planes, yet I couldn’t picture it. All I’d seen them do was high-step together in those fast-motion black-and-white films.
After the war, Grandpa made it back to the United States with both arms and both legs. But he wasn’t entirely clean. He developed a wet brain, or Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome, a German-associated diagnosis.
“Memories can be wounds, too,” Grandma said.
As a result, Grandpa drank worse than she did. Thirty years later, he died from a massive heart attack.
“It happened on the day before your birth,” she said. “His kardia went ka-boom.”
“It sure did. And that’s all I have to say about him.”
She kept any dark secrets about my grandfather to herself. Not until did my adulthood did Mom bring up his dementia. “He would accuse her of working for the Nazis,” she said. He would try to kill her. What other secrets were they holding from me?
Grandma rode the train back to California. On Christmas Eve, when I came downstairs to get cookies for Santa Claus, I caught my father filling my stocking.
“Dad, what’re you doing?”
He backed away from the fireplace, holding my gifts behind his back. “I was just, uh, helping Santa. He’s a little backed up from the, well, the snowstorm.”
He was right about the snowstorm.
“Are you his elf?”
“I am. He’s short this year. You can blame the president for that.”
“But where’s your cap?”
My father ran out of answers, so he told me to have a seat. He didn’t give me the grisly details about Santa’s death, but I imagined it had to do with his sleigh running out of gas (his reindeers, that is).
In the following Easter, the Easter Bunny never showed up, so Dad had to cancel the Easter egg hunt. He flew to Indianapolis that same weekend for a business conference.
“He retired,” Mom said about the Easter Bunny.
“We’re telling you this now so you won’t grow up bitter.”
Their plan didn’t work.
The Family Anxiety
By the time I was thirteen, my parents had moved me to five different towns in five different states. I denied any anxious feelings.
“The move’ll be good for you,” Dad said, pitching me the hard sell. “You’ll experience all types of cultures in the fifth grade. How many of your friends can say that?”
None. They were so fortunate.
The culture shock persisted for the first two decades of my life, and I drifted along as the archetypal new kid at school: the fresh Christian boy in a predominantly Jewish grade school; the northern bird at a middle school of southern good ol’ boys; the east coaster at a high school of Okie descendants. Where was the sense of community and what did it stand for?
All the while, Mom worked two jobs, and Dad worked day and night, so a latchkey like myself had to learn things on his own.
Even babysitters abandoned me. One of them in Pittsburgh invited his girlfriend over. “Here, Kid, watch some TV. We’re going upstairs to check on the boogeyman.”
Wherever the boogeyman was, he did a number on my bed springs.
In college, the monsters were no longer under my bed. They no longer wore sharp teeth and yellow claws; I couldn’t see them, but they existed in the form of broad abstractions such as social diseases, catastrophic visions, and failed expectations: or herpes, terrorist attacks or flunking school and going homeless. None of those catastrophes ever happened, but they would come at any moment. Those feelings crept behind me and whispered sweet evil into my unconscious. I was either dying or going crazy. All it took was a nudging of the first domino for the anxiety to begin. The sunlight turned gray. All the objects and people shrank around me, showing from the peeking end of a telescope. The phenomenon was micropsia, a concept since the mid-nineteenth century, around the time when Lewis Carroll had written Alice In Wonderland.
Along with the objects and the people, the noises shrank, too. Friends appeared strange. My family was no longer my family but a bunch of imposters who called themselves relatives.
In the emergency room, the doctor called it a panic attack, which sounded like a seventies game show.
“This is serious, Doctor.”
“Relax, you just have a little anxiety.”
Oh, just a little.
Ever since my first panic attack, I wondered how Plato had ever gotten by without Xanax. He and the rest of the Ancient Greeks knew nothing about physiology and repressed feelings.
My family’s anxiety went back several generations. Antidepressants couldn’t revise history. There were no psychoanalytic papers about my ancestors in the seventeenth century. Something or someone must’ve caused the anxiety in my ancestors. It rubbed off on their children, and it rubbed off on the children of their children. Whoever they were and whatever they had done to the family, I fantasized about tying them up:
“Which one of you motherfuckers fucked it up for the rest of us?”
Of all torture methods, my favorites involved drills and saws.
“Ben, don’t you ever want to settle down and have children someday?” Mom once asked.
“Let me get back to you on that.”
Sigmund Freud gave anxiety his interpretation only thirty years before Grandpa’s birth. If Hippocrates were a hypocrite, was Freud a fraud? The word preceded the man in his defense. Based on his theories, I shared the same complexities as Oedipus and Narcissus. The pride I wasn’t so proud of.
My therapist told me, “Don’t beat yourself up. Hemingway had anxiety, too.”
An aspiring writer loved to hear those thongs.
“You mean I’m just like Ernest Hemingway?”
“Sure, but minus a few masterpieces. Oh, and you’ll likely never live in France and be a war journalist. Oh, and you’ll probably never rub elbows with famous editors.”
This was during a period of castration anxiety when I had recurring nightmares about losing my thing. It went back to circumcision in my understanding. My neighbor, Rory, in the fourth grade said he didn’t need one for another three years at his bar mitzvah. He wanted to keep his as a souvenir, he said. When I asked him to feed my fish, I thought how odd his thing must look.
“Hey, Rory, can you feed my fish while I’m on vacation?”
“Where are you going?”
“Greece? Don’t those people fuck butts?”
Worry filled my heart.
“But I’m Greek,” I said.
“So you’re a buttfucker?”
I didn’t know why I was friends with Rory; I just was.
“Who’s at the door, Rory,” his mother said.
“Um, so, can you feed my fish?”
“How much you going to pay me?”
I asked my mother why he would make that demand.
“I thought we were friends.”
“Oh lord, he probably gets it from his father. Don’t worry, I’ll pay his mother for the trouble.”
“And do Greek people put it in their butts?”
My mother didn’t want me to believe that I was the result of sodomy. My father taught me about sex as a result. I couldn’t remember my circumcision. Too traumatic the memory was for my conscious, which explained these nightmares of an unseen hand swiping my thing right off.
At 34 years old I still had those nightmares. Sometimes it felt as if my thing was missing, at the gym of all places. Walking on a treadmill, I stuck my hand down my pants to make sure it was still there. The trainer warned me. It was humiliating. My therapist heard it from me, so he suggested I take Seroquel.
“Just report any side effects,” he said.
“Report any numbness.”
My Trip To Greece
In the year when my grandmother visited Pittsburgh, Mom and Dad planned a trip to Greece.
“I’m not going,” I said.
“We planned this trip a year ago. Now get in the shuttle.”
“But I don’t want to die.”
“You’re not going to die,” Dad said.
“Don’t listen to your grandmother. She’s always had a fear of planes. She’s hysterical.”
They picked me up by the arms and legs and tried to hurl me into the airport shuttle. But I wasn’t a rolled up carpet, so I kicked and screamed.
“How the hell do we get him in there?” my father asked.
The driver offered help.
“Just stay there,” my father said.
Mom had an idea. Her pills, she could feed me those. Both of them held me down, this time along with the driver, and one of them pried my mouth while another one dropped the pill down my throat. The Valium kicked in minutes later. I wondered what all the fuss was about.
To a ten-year-old, Greece was just a bunch of islands. The Acropolis was the first landmark my parents showed me.
“Ben, do you know what enlightenment is?” Mom asked.
“Does it have to do with lights?”
“Yes, actually, sort of. When you see the Acropolis, a light will flash in your head. Divinity will be the light.”
Whatever divinity meant, it didn’t matter. The Saturday morning cartoons were on, and I was I staring at a landfill of broken monoliths. Mom and Dad had driven me to the Lincoln Memorial in the past summer, to see a parade-sized statue of Abe Lincoln. How haunting to think that any moment he could’ve risen from his chair and started walking. The structure looked similar to the Acropolis, but at least the Lincoln Memorial was complete. Why did the Acropolis look under construction after thousands of centuries? I didn’t see any empty Big Gulp containers lying in the dirt, so the construction workers must’ve quit.
“Mom, are they still building it?”
“No, the Italians came and destroyed it.”
“Then why don’t they fix it?”
“What did I tell you about asking questions?” Dad said.
“Some things you just don’t fix,” Mom said, “like the Leaning Tower of Pisa, should they fix that?”
“Or the Liberty Bell. You think they should fix that, too?”
“Well, yeah, kind of.”
“Stop pissing off your mother.”
They hated my questions, not the quality per se but the quantity. I could’ve been prosperous because of questions; then again, I could’ve also been murdered.
“Ben, one day, you’re going to look back on this trip and see that you had taken it for granted,” Mom said. “That’s unless you change your attitude.”
She was right. In my college years, I should’ve gone to Greece. Therefore, I wouldn’t have had to lie to get laid.
“I just got back from Greece.”
“You really went to Greece? Oh my God, that is, like, so trippy.”
The vacation I described to college girls was much different from the real account: “I stood at the top of Mount Olympus, and it was like I was drinking with Dionysus. It was as if I had grown wings. It was as if I had made the imprint of the almighty Zeus.”
“Will you kiss me?”
The college girls thought my fabricated wisdom made me sound cultured.
“The beer in Greece is nine times better than Bud Light.”
Lies got me laid until another pretentious soul had returned from Europe. Except he really did go there in the past summer. He also played acoustic guitar. He crossed his legs on the floor where the girls met in a powwow. In between tunes, he told them his adventures and the epiphanies they had brought. He even did it barefooted. I hated Zane.
This was in 1999, my millennial friend, way before Instagram, and my real trip to Greece was in the eighties. To prove my worldliness to these girls, I would’ve had to snap Polaroids, wait for them to roll out, and shake them until they developed. Way back then, Instagram was an actual photo album, and photo albums weighed more than those thousand-page directories we called phone books. A phone book listed the names and phone numbers of the townspeople. Someone would’ve had to carry a photo album all day to show people where he drank his last mojito.
“Wasn’t it fascinating?” one girl asked me. Well, to a ten-year-old, no. The Acropolis bored me so much that I asked about the pool hall.
“What pool hall?” Dad asked.
“The one where Hippocrates caught Plato smoking.”
“What on Earth are you talking about?”
“I think Grandma was telling him stories,” Mom said.
“Then where are the alleys?” I asked.
“She told you about alleys?”
“Yeah, in the red light district.”
“The red light district, huh,” Mom said. “When your grandmother drinks wine, she mixes up her stories.”
Whether those stories were false, they still made more sense than that rubble of architecture we stood in front of. The whole country needed repair.
Speaking of rubble, I was missing Barney Rubble and the Flintstones. The TV in our hotel room had one channel, and it cut in and out of static. So the Greeks didn’t just wrestle each other. Not all of them wore togas or leafy headbands either. I was wrong about them. They also watched television. The channel showed nothing but commercials for knickknacks and music videos of Greek pop stars—they all looked like Madonna. And music overseas sucked.
He-Man, GI Joe, The Flintstones, The Jetsons, Looney Tunes—all were thousands of miles away; they were back in time, literally. I felt true homesickness, especially at the thought of Mitch and Frankie. Hopefully, Rory was feeding them every day. Mom had paid him, so he should’ve been.
“Mom, can I call Rory?”
“Call Rory? Do you know how much it costs to phone him long distance?”
“Yeah, but I just want to check on Mitch and Frankie.”
“They’re goldfish. They’re fine.”
“Come on, Mom.”
“Just go to bed. We have to get up early for the donkeys.”
The donkeys? Neither she nor Dad had mentioned anything about donkeys.
On the island called Rhodes, we rode the donkeys on a road of dirt. Their hooves kept sliding. I waited for mine to tip over, yet it didn’t. It stayed upright, but anything might’ve spooked it, then it would’ve run for the hills, and I would’ve fallen off and shattered my bones. Not even the Lone Ranger could tame that animal, so I yelled, “get me off this thing.” The donkey trainer threw his cigarette down and yelled at me in Greek. I could tell he wasn’t recommending any restaurants.
“Are you seriously whining over a donkey?” Mom said.
“Can’t you enjoy a single minute here,” Dad said.
He was right. I was being such a brat that I was making them miserable, too. Why did they deserve this? The vacation was theirs, not mine.
“What was Crete like?” the college girl asked.
“I stayed at this bungalow on the bay,” I said. “I canoed with some of the natives, and they taught me how to harpoon fish. The water’s surface was like a sheet of navy blue glass.”
We stayed for a night. The part about the bungalow was true. I tried to behave myself and enjoy every moment on that island. When my parents were around, I smiled and told them everything was fun and beautiful. I could hide my discontent until my mother tried to get me in the bay. I hated saltwater. Besides, in the movie Clash Of The Titans, Perseus had to fight a sea monster.
The Claymation itself crept under my skin. I pleaded with Mom not to go in there, but she didn’t listen. “The sea monster, the sea monster,” I cried until she came back. “I’m going to make you go in there if it kills me.” Well, if that happened, it would’ve killed us both.
Enough pleading forced her to give up on the bay. She went with me to the pool and stuck her feet in the water. It was warm enough to where I could jump right in. I felt razor blades in my eyes, so I lunged back over the surface. “My eyes, my eyes.”
“Why’re you making that face?” she said.
“It’s full of saltwater.”
“That’s what Europeans swim in.”
“What kind of weirdos swim in saltwater?” I said, but I would tell the college girl something else: “Saltwater is good for your body. It removes the toxins.”
“Oh my gosh, I so have to try that.”
But back in Crete, I couldn’t pretend for too long.
“This is terrible,” I said.
Mom got out of the pool and started walking away.
“Wait, where’re you going?” I said.
“I’m tired of your bellyaching. You’re putting me in a bad mood.”
“I was just kidding,” I said, but she must not have believed me.
When I was alone in the pool, a pretty blond girl showed up. She was my age, and she was visiting from England. She dropped in like a sugar cube and sweetened the water. Together we swam. I pulled her wrists while she paddled with her legs. Then we switched places. We were like an Olympic duo. She called me Benny, and it made me tingle all over.
“Would you comb my hair, Benny?”
We swam to the steps. I used my fingernails to scratch the salt from her hair, and she did the same with mine. She also showed me how to massage the scalp by pressing her fingers into it and rolling them in tight circles. While she did it, I watched a woman remove her top in the sand. Evidently nude beaches did exist outside of HBO. A latchkey child could watch R-rated movies if his parents had premium cable. In a film called Hardbodies, the women removed their tops so nonchalantly; they may as well have blown their noses.
“I want to do that,” my wife said.
“Then what’s stopping you?”
“You dare me?”
“I double-dog dare you.”
“What’s a double-dog, Benny?”
She was serious. Whatever their customs were, the English handled matters in ways other than double-dogs. Something about the monarchy had gone awry.
“If you do it, I’ll have to do something two times worse.”
“Like what, Benny?”
“I could show you my peepee.”
“No, that’s OK.”
“Good, because I didn’t want to.”
“How about you swim out there?”
She was referring to the bay.
“Uh, no, that’s a triple-dog. You have to double-dog dare me first.”
“OK, then I guess you can show me your peepee.”
She began pulling off her top. Before she could do it, my mother-in-law snatched her out of the water. “What the bloody hell are you doing with this boy?”
“Oh, hello, Mum. He’s my new friend.”
“Hey, bring her back,” I said, but my mother-in-law ignored me and carried her away.
“Bye-bye, Benny,” my wife said.
“Wait, what’s your name?”
She blew me a kiss before she left for good. The kiss flew over and made me quiver. And the way she had called me Benny…finally, I appreciated Greece. Mitch and Frankie were second. She stayed in Athens as well, but we didn’t know the names of our hotels. I didn’t have her phone number either. In less than an hour, the end of romance had left me salty, to go along with Santa Claus’s death or the Easter Bunny’s retirement. What the hell would happen at age eleven?
The Last Day
On the ride back to Athens, I pouted in the backseat.
“What’s wrong now?” Mom asked.
She heard about the love of my life. “And now she’s gone. Forever.”
“I hate to tell you this, but girls will come, and girls will go. And you better get used to them going.”
“But I didn’t want her to go.”
“Trust me,” she said, “you’ll get sick of them from time to time. Just ask your father.” She looked to Dad who steered the car not from the left side but from the right side. The Greeks swam in salty pools; they watched weird television; they drove on the wrong side. God, I missed home again. “Right, Daddy?”
“What do you mean?” he said. “I never get sick of you.”
“Right,” Mom said. Sarcasm was the male-pattern baldness of my mother’s side. The Latin word came from the Greek word sakazein, which meant “to tear flesh.”
“Ben, tell your Mom you always love her company…Ben?”
“Sometimes,” I said.
“What did you say? I’ll pull over.”
“Calm down,” Mom said to him, “just keep your eyes on the road.”
He stared me down in the rearview, so I focused on the hillsides. The houses that populated them were all shaped the same. From a distance, the hillside was one big beehive with honeycomb houses over the ocean.
“Ben, you’ll have to tolerate their fathers too,” she said, “but you won’t be able to control that.”
“Yeah, but I didn’t meet her Dad. Her Mom was real mean.”
“Just study hard, and one day you might become a doctor.”
“Why a doctor?”
“Because they make a lot of money, and they do it legally, most of the time.”
“Why does that matter?”
“Because women love money. Just promise me you won’t sell drugs.”
“OK, Mom, I won’t sell drugs.”
“Good. You can get women that way, too, but they won’t stick around as long.”
“So what kind of doctor would I be?”
“Again with the questions,” Dad said.
“Any kind but a dentist.”
In the morning, the rain was warm and brief and bothersome. It reminded me of the baths that my Mom used to give me. When it let up, my father asked us to go fishing. Whenever he waited for a snag in the Allegheny, he would sit all day on a rock, while Mom and I would suffer through existence. Mom must’ve been wondering about a divorce. The boredom got so torturous that I had to count how many sunflower seeds I had eaten.
Before he went fishing, Dad put on a Greek sailor hat.. He kept saying “Opa” in public instead of “hello.” But opa really meant, “shit, I’m sorry,” which was right when he wore that hat in public. The Skipper wore one similar on Gilligan’s Island, except it wasn’t as round and masticated.
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So Dad had to bring his fishing pole out to sea alone. “Where’s your sense of adventure,” he said to me and Mom both. Regarding adventure, the two of them had separate ideas. She found it in the market district.
“Is Dad going to be swallowed up by the sea monster?”
“Oh, Ben, if that were so, we wouldn’t be here, and we certainly wouldn’t be bored.”
She was right. The sea monster eating my father would’ve given a brand-new meaning to adventure.
“You need to sort myth from reality,” she said.
“What’s a myth?”
“Myths are like the bible. The Greeks made up stories to explain things they couldn’t understand.”
“You mean centaurs aren’t real?”
“A woman can only be so lucky.”
The market district reminded me of one in Pittsburgh, where the vendors set up tents and sold trinkets. My mother bought clay figurines. One was of a Greek soldier, and another was a tiny model of a Greek house.
I knew one tent in Pittsburgh that sold lamb gyros, so I looked for one in Athens. Gyros, the way I saw it, were Greek tacos. They didn’t taste as good as Mexican tacos, but that week I had eaten enough Kalamata seeds to grow an olive tree in my stomach.
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“Mom, where are the JIE-ROES?”
“Did you just say what I thought you said?”
“How many times have I told you the proper enunciation of that word and yet you still get it wrong? You’re Greek for Chrissakes. It’s pronounced h-YEAR-owes. Say it.” The way she rolled the syllables near a bunch of locals made me timid; it embarrassed me as much as my father’s hat. I tried it a dozen or so times before I lost my breath.
“Do it until you get it right.”
“I don’t want to anymore. This is stupid.”
“Then forget it. They don’t make them here anyway. Gyros are Americanized.”
“Yeah, like pizza. They don’t really make pizza in Italy.”
“But heroes taste better than the crap I eat here.”
“Again, you’re too young to know better. You’re in this beautiful country, and you think you’re a prisoner. What about your friends back home. Rory can’t afford to come here,” she said. “I repeat: don’t take this vacation for granted. The older you get, the more your views will change, and that goes for your taste buds.”
This came from an adult who drank that dirt she called wine. If anything, taste buds corroded with age.
“If you can wait a few more hours, we’ll go to a restaurant that has a view of the water. We hear they make great moussaka.”
Blah. She made moussaka back home. It was a Greek lasagna. She would layer it with feta cheese and bake it for an hour when an Oscar Meyer hot dog would’ve taken a minute in the microwave.
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But when a boy had to eat, he would try anything. And when a boy had to eat, he would wander off.
I waited for her to explore a jewelry tent before I slipped away. She didn’t need to worry. A police officer would always be around, and he could find her for me, and perhaps direct me towards the alley where Hippocrates used to shoot up. The problem was that nobody could speak English. Nobody.
“Um, excuse me, Sir, but where’s the alley where Hippocrates used to shoot up?”
He shrugged, he smiled, but that was it. My parents had bought me a Greek translator. The book could fit in my back pocket along with the bible that Grandma had given me. I could’ve used it then, but it was in the hotel.
Athens was a labyrinth. After twenty steps, I lost my bearings, and everything changed: the people, the tents, even the sounds, and the smells along with the clear sky all turned gray. “Mom,” I called out, but the wind captured my voice and blew it out to sea. Maybe my father would hear it if he wasn’t already chymified by the great Cetus.
The crowd only grew, and it smothered me to where I couldn’t move left or right. To my left, she appeared, far away, my wife, holding hands with my mother-in-law. They cut through the crowd, and I could see them from only behind. They had to be them. They disappeared among all those people. I yelled, “wait,” and I zigzagged past those gangly adults; after every zag, the backs of their heads appeared again, but they kept gaining distance. Something told me the gods were fooling me. She wasn’t my wife; she was an imposter; so was her mother. I had fallen into a myth. I was another tragic Greek hero.
At the bong of a church bell, everyone migrated in the other direction. Things would worsen at night if I couldn’t find my mother. My wife was out there somewhere, too, so was the hotel of a forgotten name. The canopy had those round Greek letters with the lines through them, and that was all I knew. So who could help?
A troop of Greek soldiers stood in front of what might’ve been the Greek White House. Maybe the Greek president could find my mother. The soldiers wore short skirts and white stockings. They held rifles to their sides, and they used themselves to barricade the fortress. They wouldn’t move and wouldn’t even blink.
“Officer, I can’t find my mom.” He kept his eyes and chin forward and his mouth locked. Of course, he didn’t speak. “What about a blond girl? She’s ten, like me.”
When none of them would help, I asked random civilians, but again my English left them perplexed. What else could I do but roam the streets at night, hoping Mom would show up?
I wound up at an amphitheater, where a colorful array of lights shined over thousands of people who had gathered not for a concert but for a play without actors. It was mainly a laser light show with mesmerizing red and neon green and neon purple theatrical lightning that pierced through clouds of white smoke. Between the lasers, a cracking thunder forced me to jump out of my breath. Then a booming voice from the heavens rattled my teeth. There were so many Greek heavens to account for so many Greek gods. Otherwise, the gods would’ve had to cram themselves in the same celestial elevator. Other voices responded, either male or female, while the leading voice implored something to me in a Pavorottiesque inflection. One of the Greek words was Zeus. The God of Thunder. I knew him from Clash of the Titans. He had a gray beard and a long gray haircut like God’s.
In fact, I could’ve mistaken him for the American god. His intonation said, “flee, you young American fool or my lightning will split you in half”—that was my understanding. The loudest thunder cracked the air, so I fled the amphitheater.
His threats chased me to a cobblestone alley where somebody groaned to my right. He was a ragged young man leaning against a building.
“Hippocrates?” I asked.
Nai meant yes. Of the few Greek words I knew, that one stuck. I might’ve entered a time portal like the one the dwarves fell through in Time Bandits, all because of my hunger for gyros.
I ended up in Ancient Greece. Only remnants of the city, such as the ruinous Acropolis remained in time. The gods yelled threats from the Athenian sky while somewhere else Reagan was testing nuclear weapons. Too many wars had stunted the city, and meanwhile, Hippocrates looked too tragically modern.
“Do you need some aspirin?” I asked, but he couldn’t respond under so much pain—not that I had any on me; it just felt like the proper thing to ask.
Then a white light beamed from the end of the alley. Hippocrates blocked it with his hand and cried mercy on his knees while I froze on my feet. How else could a mortal face the God of Thunder? Me running the other way might’ve pissed him off. I hoped instead for some fabled god to battle him to the death. It could be something as generic as the American God—something at a Giant Eagle for half the price as its competitors.
Hippocrates picked himself up and ran down the other end. I closed my eyes and waited for a lightning bolt or a strong wind or a fireball if he could hurl those. But no. He let Hippocrates escape.
The light sharpened, split in two, and the orbs adjoined not with thunder but by a sputtering motor—a car motor. It wasn’t a flying chariot–which I imagined Zeus would’ve ridden if he needed transportation–it was a taxi cab.
He poked his head out of the driver’s side window, with a fat head and a short mustache. He couldn’t be Zeus. If so, he had really let himself go. But with lightning bolts, what was the need of hiking Mount Olympus anyway?
Well, if he were just an ordinary cab driver, which he was, he still could’ve been dangerous. He might’ve been slaughtering American boys that whole time and used their ears as hood ornaments, but the yellow hood was clean except for Greek pigeon shit. He yelled in Greek, and I yelled back, “Inglis, Inglis.” He whistled with his hands and offered me the backseat, so I took the offering to stay alive should the real Zeus was still out there chasing me. The driver and I could negotiate. My father had given me Euros to keep in my wallet for this type of situation. What a blessing never to spend them on food. I could’ve paid off the cabbie, but I couldn’t tell if it would work. Those Euros looked like Monopoly money, and Monopoly money was worthless.
“Sir, please, let me live,” I said. “My dad makes a lot of money, and I want to be eleven. This year kind of sucked, and well, I think next year has to be better.”
He just stared at me.
“Please, Sir, my last birthday was awesome. It was at a bowling alley. Mom got us cake and pizza. You ever had ice cream cake from Baskin Robbins?”
When he still didn’t respond, I pulled out the Euros. He hollered something in Greek, and I jumped from my seat. It didn’t sound angry, just aggressive.
“Hotel,” I said.
He grinned at my answer, with his mustache hanging over his mouth. He wiggled his finger; then he drove us away. He must’ve known the right hotel or the one hotel at which any naïve American would stay—at a dump with cold showers and bed sheets made of poison ivy. I let him do his thing. He snuffed a cigarette in an ashtray that was already stuffed with butts. When he stuffed it in, another one fell out. It taught me about population control. Every pothole shook another one out, then another. If this were Ancient Greece, him speeding through those narrow streets would unquestionably take me back to 1987 like Marty McFly. Steering with one hand, he ate a slice of American cheese and washed it down with a can of 7-UP. I could imagine the aftertaste resting on his tongue as stubbornly as dust in an attic. Someone with his diet couldn’t be a vindictive god for sure. While he drove the car, he belched, he farted, he spat out the window, and he turned himself around to talk to me. Somehow he knew all the correct turns at the precise moments. He could handle a conversation without my advice. Not one English word slipped under his mustache, but whatever the story was, it made him cackle, so I laughed along to keep him happy enough to drive me back safely. His hands spoke, too. He flailed his arms in the cab.
“Mister, the road.”
He disregarded what I said. An ambulance swerved in front of us. I yelled it again. Red flashed in my sight, and terror blurred the objects. He punched the brakes, stopping a foot before the screaming ambulance.
After that ordeal, he picked the story up where it was left off. The man was a pro. If Zeus were to strike down, my friend would’ve deflected his almighty lightning and given him the finger. He could’ve already died a thousand times. Although I didn’t understand any Greek myths, some of them had me think about immortality and the superpowers each human possessed. For instance, some people could recharge brains through proper surgery; others could throw knives and not even nick any skin. My friend could run over Hades and color the street with his blood—and still tell a story.
The hotel was how I remembered it, having that blue canopy with the same Greek letters that spelled out something. American Suckers: that was what it read to me. Besides the recipe of tobacco, American cheese, lime soda, and the journey through the underworld, the man and his cab amused me. He saluted me in Greek and capped it with a wink. Dad had preached to me, “always tip service workers. These people live off their tips.” He had shown me how to add fifteen percent to a restaurant bill. Because the driver had certainly done me a service, I handed him all my Euros, but he brushed them away. “No no no no no no.” He must’ve had enough food on his table. Only one good man needed to prove that Athens didn’t consist only of cruel gods. I would miss him along with my British wife who was out there somewhere in that colossus of a city. Or she was back home in England. Wherever she was, she would show up again—she had to. Life had to atone for Santa’s death and Greek TV.
The television kept me company in the hotel room, while a helicopter circled the building and slashed the window with its white light. My parents were searching for my whereabouts with the police and their two-headed rescue dogs. The helicopter may as well have joined the party. I had nowhere to go until they would come back.
I was still hungry, so I dialed up room service to bring me a plate of gyros. Hunger triggered loneliness. Without a sense of community, I could’ve been anywhere in the world and yet the loneliness was still there. To think how my parents kept bragging about what a great opportunity I had to visit Greece when I was this homesick: “your friends can’t come here because their parents can’t afford it. Just think how jealous they are.” Mitch and Frankie couldn’t afford it either, and I struggled to believe they would’ve wanted to travel there anyway. They had moved too often as it were, going from a sandwich bag full of tap water to a fishbowl full of tap water and likely to another sandwich bag full of tap water. Whether they knew it or not, I had played their god for three months, cultivating their universe with fish feed. My wish for them was a little stability.
Room service brought everything I had wanted. When I took the food from the concierge, he pulled his hat off and held it out for a tip. My father once yelled at a waiter because of the same gesture. “That’s rude,” I told the concierge, but he didn’t know English. Although the cabbie deserved it more, I gave the concierge a tip anyway, then I shut the door in his face. Some nerve he had to expect gratuity from a child.
At least the cook had followed the instructions of no feta cheese and no yogurt sauce, and extra French fries. Dairy grossed me out. It came from a cow’s stomach, yet I loved cereal.
The door swung open when I was eating, and Mom rushed in, hysterical. Dad’s face was boiling, either from rage or sunburn or both.
“Thank heavens you’re still alive,” she said.
“Why wouldn’t I be?”
“I thought you were dead.”
“Mom, you worry too much.”
“Why wouldn’t I worry? You’re my baby.”
“But if you worry, then I worry.”
“Don’t ever wander off like that,” Dad said. “Look at your mother. She’s having a nervous breakdown.”
“Her womb is OK,” I said.
“Her what? Don’t get smart with me, Boy.”
When he noticed all the room service on the bed, he threw his sailor’s hat to the floor. “We looked all over for you, and this is what you do?”
Mom kept her arms around me and wouldn’t let go. “Promise me you’ll never run off again.”
At a flea market, there was no guarantee.
The flight took thirteen hours. I watched the plane gather speed down the runway and lift itself to the sky. I enjoyed that part. The roads and the greenery all shrank outside the window. Once the country disappeared, I wanted to go back, yet I never wanted to go back again. Nor did I want to go back to Pittsburgh except to see Mitch and Frankie. Otherwise, the rest of the flight was an existential hell inside a metallic bird with all those smelly adults and crying babies. But in the end, I had survived the labyrinth so I could ride a plane without the need of my mother’s Valium. The universe was infinite, and my world was just another fishbowl.
Well, after two weeks, Mitch and Frankie’s universe had gone empty. The orange bodies had once glistened in the water, but now they lay on the brown carpet, opaque and motionless. I ran upstairs from the horror and wept in my bedroom.
When Mom came in, she held a new sandwich bag, a dry one with those two corpses inside. How could anyone touch a dead person or dead animal without fainting? I couldn’t lay a finger on anything dead, not even a dead lightbulb. Mom once asked me to unscrew one, but knowing the thing had died and lost its purpose, I couldn’t touch it. She had to convince me it was dead in another sense. When I began to unscrew it, the lightbulb shined back to life, and I dropped it. It cracked to pieces, and from there it never came back to life.
I looked away from the sandwich bag. The thing that had kept my friends alive also preserved their corpses for their burial, which made sense. Mom had kept me alive in her sink, and she had baptized me in one, too.
“Come on, let’s go bury them,” she said, but how could she?
“No, we’re not. They’re not dead. They’re just sleeping.”
“In a way, they are sleeping,” she said. “Death could be just one long nap, or their souls could be swimming to heaven as we speak. But we don’t want their bodies to rot in our house.”
Age ten was rough. My Greek family history was heavy enough.
“Don’t you know about Frankenstein? And what about the moose at Uncle Mike’s house?”
“Sweetie, Frankenstein isn’t real. It’s about technology. And that moose isn’t really alive. It’s just a taxidermic head on your uncle’s wall.”
“Then why did he put it there? So it’ll wake back up.”
“He put it there as a trophy. That’s what he does. Remember, he voted for Reagan.”
“Just leave me alone with them,” I said. “Can’t I say bye?”
“Of course you can. Just bring them down when you’re done.”
Mom kissed my forehead and left me alone with my friends. Mitch was looking right at me from his side. I rubbed him with my index finger. Touching a corpse wasn’t as bad if I pretended it was still alive. I even pressed his body to see if any water would shoot out, but no, he was hollow, and so was Frankie. They needed some substance or a ritual for rebirth, so I crumpled up pieces of the Sunday funnies, and with an eraser, I stuffed the papers into their mouths and pushed them farther into their bellies. I kept shoving the papers in until they looked full. Afterward, I glued them to a piece of wood.
I set the board over the fireplace where our stockings would hang next Christmas, right next to a framed picture of my father holding a bass.
“No, absolutely not,” my mother said. “That is morbid. You take it down this minute.”
“Oh, please, Mom, just let them stay.”
“I cannot let my guests see this.”
“But what about Uncle Mike?”
“Ben, a moose head is different. This is just perverted. Now take it down, or I’ll take it down.”
She took it down. Mom always won the battles. “Come with me,” she said. “We’re giving them the water burial.”
The water burial wasn’t a traditional burial. She peeled their bodies from the wood and dropped them in the toilet. The plopping noises made me want to cry. She pressed the handle, and my friends whirled counter-clockwise down the plumbing pipes and into the next dimension (that dimension was a cesspool for the Monongahela).
“You’re feeling denial,” she said. “This is the first stage, and you have only four more stages to go.” She called it the five stages of grief. “They’ll go faster than you think.”
By early evening, I already advanced to the second stage: anger. The sun was still up. I knocked on Rory’s door. When he opened it, he was eating a melted Kit-Kat, with chocolate around his lips.
“Oh, hi, Ben, how was your trip?”
Rather than giving him a pleasant recap, I gave him the hammer of Hephaestus. I smacked the chocolate out of his hand and wrapped him in a headlock, knocking the yarmulke off his head. I kicked it aside. “Say you’re sorry. Say you’re sorry.”
“You’re a liar; you’re a murderer.”
His mother came right up and pulled us apart. “Don’t you call my son a liar.”
“He killed my fish.”
“What do you mean he killed your fish? I was with him. We fed them every morning. Now, look at him. He’s all red.”
“Red from the blood of my friends.”
“Fish don’t bleed, stupid,” Rory said.
I kicked him in the shin, and he pogoed on one foot. His mother pushed me back out to the porch. “I’m calling your mother. Now you leave our house this minute and don’t come back.”
It was my first restraining order. That evening, my mother had to explain what it meant. The rabbi’s family had banned me from their property for eternity. In Hebrew, the word Olam didn’t mean forever; instead “very far away.”
That next year, Dad moved us very far away to Florida for a new job. I had to begin the fifth grade as the new kid. I didn’t miss my old friends until then, even though I wasn’t allowed near their synagogue, and Rory and I couldn’t share the same school bus. I refused to sit near a killer anyway. Even if Mrs. Cohen had told the truth, the fish committing suicide was still implausible. Only in mythology would Mitch and Frankie have the Herculean strength to thrust themselves out of their universe. If they did, they must’ve been too miserable to stay in it. The world was like a fishbowl. The differences were that it was bigger, obviously, and it was perfectly round. But a fishbowl was also full of water, and its inhabitants spent their whole lives wondering what the hell they were doing there and how they got there in the first place. Mitch was able to think those things, so was Frankie. Anyway, what a shame. Sitting in that classroom with all those strange kids, I could’ve gone for a plate of Mrs. Cohen’s chopped liver and onions.
“Mr. Talbot, are you paying attention?”
The teacher was staring right at me. I had to put my existential questions on hold and spell the word TRICERATOPS on her chalkboard. Age eleven would last even longer.
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