*Prelim note: Rendering even transliterated Greek in ascii is tough; W = omega, H = eta (but not in KH)*
"There she is -- Mount Olympus."
Hank was leaning over our seat, pointing out the bus window to the cloud-occluded peak of a rather unimposing mountain in a long range running along our left flank, even as the bus turned off the main coastal highway onto the smaller road that would lead east up to the village of Litochoro.
"It doesn't look very high," Warren said from where he was sitting with Hank behind Jean and me.
"That's because you're seeing only the lower slopes. The highest peaks are all over 9,000 feet."
"And we're going to climb this in two days?"
"Well, according to Frommer's, yes. We have bedding reservations at Spilios Agapitos, the main overnight refuge, and if we leave at dawn on the second day, we can reach one of the peaks in about three hours, then do the descent that same day, returning to Litochoro by sunset."
"What about inexpert hikers, which is us?"
I could hear the smile in Hank's voice. "If it takes us more than three or four hours to reach the summit, we might need Daedelus' wings."
"Ha," was Warren's reply.
Arriving in Litochoro, we checked into our hotel off a little square with wrought-iron lamps and what looked like a free-standing, four tier white-stucco bell tower with a domed top capped by an Orthodox cross. Most of the town lay east and south in picturesque, winding streets with whitewashed homes and red-clay tile roofs. We ate, then all crowded onto the balcony of Hank and Warren's room (they had the better view) to stare out at the mountain we would tackle in the morning. It was breathtaking, even cut by cloud, and we went to bed early to get plenty of rest. Up before the sun the next morning, Jean woke me by bouncing on my feet under the blanket. This was her moment, her dream adventure, and it struck me as funny that such an intellectual woman was here not to visit ancient sites or museums, but to climb a mountain.
We'd arranged all our details in advance, including temporary storage for some of our luggage, as there was little point in lugging 50+ pounds up the mountain when we needed only a fraction of it. Thus, we were on our way by foot before eight o'clock, fortified with an 'English breakfast' and strong Greek coffee. This was the easiest part, hiking up a broad trail through late spring greenery, and we arrived in Priona, our first designated stop, by lunch. Easy or not, four hours uphill to 5,000 feet was still draining, and we were hot and hungry. Yet Jean was impatient, rallying all of us back to our feet by two and out the door into weather that grew increasingly brisk, the higher we went.
This next leg was harder, covering slippery limestone and rough outcroppings. Mostly, we could still walk, but some portions involved the use of hands, not just feet. I'd thought myself in good shape, but even an hour out of Priona, I was tired from the elevation and effort. "It's the smoking," Jean informed me, and while it annoyed me (coming unsolicited), I couldn't escape the fact that I was the only one wheezing this badly. Even Warren fared better, though he had the assistance of mutant lungs designed to take thinner oxygen at altitudes.
The trek made up for the physical strain in sheer, spectacular beauty. Unlike the south, the Greek north was green, Olympus rich in tall silver pine, beech and fir. There were robins, titmice and chaffinches, and at these elevations, spring still lingered. Flowers were abundant from bright red poppies on the lower slopes to tiny purple sweet pea and white saxifrage on the higher, plus the rare viola delphinantha -- a pink violet that Hank was happy to tell us was unique to the range. Jean and I climbed together most of way, steadying each other over the rougher sections, and I couldn't help noticing the glances shot our way by Hank and Warren. I had a good idea what they were thinking, and hadn't forgotten my grandmother's assertion a year ago that Jean was "my" redhead, yet I made an excellent ostrich, sticking my head in the sand.
It was nearing five in the afternoon before we reached the old, ruined monastery of St. Dionyssios, and began crossing and recrossing the Enippeas River Gorge (once over a rickety wooden bridge) that led us to Spilios Agapitos Refuge at almost 7,000 feet, where we'd spend the night. It's a large place, but the patio outside was already filling and we'd dawdled on the way, making us late to arrive -- and glad for our reservations. Jean and I were in for a surprise, however, when we found ourselves shown to a double bed tucked away by itself in a back building, while poor Hank and Warren were stuck with bunks. Someone, somewhere, had clearly made assumptions.
I didn't protest, and Jean didn't either. Our excuse was that we'd get a quiet night's sleep, but that wasn't the real reason, and after a game of cards with Hank and Warren and a draft of some herbal drink called (unimaginatively) "Olympus," we turned in at nine-thirty, half an hour before lights out, with Jean curled against my side. "It's cold," she said. I made her comfortable with my arm for a pillow and we fell asleep spooned together. I breathed her hair and dreamed Elysian dreams, and when I woke in the morning, although we'd separated in our sleep, she was still tucked up next to me, her face turned my way. I hated to wake her, disturb the fantasy that we'd tacitly created, but we had to get going. Reaching out, I shook her gently. "Hey, Mary Sunshine, time to scare awake the flowers and chase away the moon."
She opened one eye. "That's not how it goes."
"The words are 'Good morning, Mary Sunshine, what makes you wake so soon? You've scared away the little stars, and shined away the moon.'"
She really didn't have a good sense of pitch, but I didn't point that out. I had more important fish to fry. "That isn't how my mom sang it."
She just laughed and threw off the covers.
The four of us dressed in warmer clothes and jackets, then ate a cold breakfast before setting out for the much steeper slopes and increasingly chilly temperatures of Olympus' upper reaches. The day was brightly clear -- no clouds -- and by mid-morning, we'd reached the sun-drenched Plateau of the Muses where, across a drop-off, the peak named Stefani dominated our view.
"We're here!" Jean yelled, racing ahead across the tough grass of the plateau, pockmarked still by light snow. Grabbing fistfuls of it, she flung it into the air, dancing around like a fool as late morning sunlight limned her in gold and glittered off the powdery stuff. It was no brighter than the light in her face.HH D' OULUMPON DE BEBHKEI DWMAT' ES AIGIOKHOIO DIOS META DAIMONAS ALLOUS. Then she set forth to Olympus among the assembled gods.
She'd climbed a mountain, my Athena, and in that moment as I watched her spin on the grass, I was struck through the heart like a sacrificial beast. All the fictions I'd constructed to convince myself of a cool platonic detachment fell away. She was my epiphany and my apocalypse both -- incandescent and terrible, sublime and holy. She'd climbed a mountain to prove to herself that she wasn't fragile. I'd climbed a mountain, and fallen in love.
In truth, Stefani was only the third-highest peak that Olympos offered -- 9,543 feet -- but that was quite good enough unless we wanted to spend days treking from refuge to refuge, and we didn't. So down we went, back to Litochoro by sunset just like the guidebook had said.
It was awkward for me. I couldn't pretend anymore, and I didn't know what to say to Jean, so I stayed mostly silent through our victory dinner in a little caf, up the main street. The others were too excited to notice, and used to my moods, but the few times they asked me something, I stumbled over words like a toddler learning English. It was humiliating. I couldn't look Jean in the eye and wondered how on earth I'd be able to sleep in the same room with her that night.KAI GELAISAS IMEROEN, TO MOI MAN KARDIAN EN STHTHESIN EPTOASIN 'WS GAR EUIDON BROKHEWS SE, PHWNAS OUDEN ET EIKEI. ALLA KAM MEN GLWSSA EAGE, LEPTON D'AUTIKA KHRWI PUR UPADEDRONMAKEN, OPPATESSI D'OUDEN ORHM' EPIRROMBEISI D'AKOUAI. A DE' MIDRWS KAKKHEETAI, TROMOS DE PAIDAN ARGEI KHLWROTERA DEI POIAS EMMI, TETHNAKHN D'OLIGW PIDEUES PHAINOMAI ALLA. If I chance upon you, I can no longer speak, my tongue is stilled, broken, and a thread of fire steals all through my veins. My eyes see nothing, my ears hum, and a cold sweat grips me, a trembling all through my limbs. I am new-grass pale, seeming little short of dead.
By the end of the meal, she'd clearly figured out that something was up, and as we all meandered down to our hotel off the square, she dropped back to walk beside me where I'd been trailing. Are you mad at me? She asked it inside my head, and that made me unreasonably angry because I feared what else she might glimpse in there.
Fuck off, I sent back, and stay out of my skull.
My harshness broke her joy, spoiling it, and my heart collapsed under guilt, but I didn't know how to fix it. She left me to rejoin Hank and Warren, reaching for the remnants of her previous excitement, but it was harsh and cheap, mere polished bronze faking gold. Warren sensed something, too, and shot me a frown over his shoulder. I shot him a bird back, which seemed to puzzle as much as annoy him.
I didn't go inside with the other three, but stayed outside with the excuse of my pipe. Perhaps predictably, Warren was back down inside ten minutes. "What the fuck was that about, on the road back there?" he asked.
"I don't need a pseudo-shrink, Warren."
"How about a friend?"
I just glared. "I don't want to talk about it." But truth was, I couldn't talk about it to him. Fortunately, he'd known me -- and Jean -- long enough to see the obvious, and he also knew more from Jean's side than I realized at the time. She'd always turned to him when she couldn't talk to me, and if I knew that intellectually, I tended to forget it. I also tended to give more weight to his feelings for me than even he did. I was obsessed by them at the same time they put me off, but he'd long since learned to deal with them.
So now, he said, "Just go in and talk to her. Tell her how you feel."
For six breaths, I stared at him, then bent over, arms hugging my abdomen, pipe still in one fist. I couldn't speak. He didn't touch me -- he knew better. Instead, he just stood there with me while all the feelings crashed over the barriers of my fears. "I can't," I said finally. "I can't. It's all wrong. All of this is wrong. I'm so fucked up. She should be with you."
"She doesn't love me, not that way. She loves you. She's been in love with you for more than a year, you dumbass."
I'd known it, and hadn't, just like she'd known it, and hadn't. (And so had Warren.)
But I wouldn't let it go. "She should be with you."
"For such a smart guy, you can be thicker than an oak. Let me spell it out, Scott. She loves you. You love her. You're good for each other. Now, get your ass up there and talk to her."
"What about you?"
"What about me?"
"It's not fair to you."
"Holy Jesus fuck!" he said, throwing up hands. "Would you get over it already?" Then he put his face right in mine, continuing more softly. "We've had this conversation. Yes, it hurts, but I've made my peace with it -- and the reality hurts less than the drama you make of it." I couldn't look at him, and turned away. "You know what I think?" he continued. "I think you find my feelings for you convenient, because they make a nice excuse. You don't dare pursue Jean because it might hurt me. But the truth is it pisses me off a lot more. I'm tired of being your albatross."
I thought he might say more -- he seemed set to -- but then he shook his head and turned around, going back inside.
I still didn't do anything. I sat outside half the night, watching tourists and locals both move about the little town square where the main road met the access highway. They walked in twos and threes and the occasional solitary, but my New York instincts never sensed any danger. Sometime around three, the main hotel door opened and Jean came out. A part of me had been expecting her all along. We needed to talk, but it wasn't in me to seek her out.
She didn't say anything, just walked across the little plaza called Platanos Square and stopped in front of where I was sitting in the moonlight on the curb of the hotel drive. No one was around just now, and she plopped down at my side, a good foot between us. "So," she said, but not knowing how to reply, I stayed quiet until the silence stretched and broke, and she snapped, "Sometimes you really tick me off, you know that?"
"So you've said. Why are you out here anyway?" I could never go quietly, and for just a second or two, I thought she might slap me. But she didn't.
"So, are you mad at me?" she asked instead.
"I'm mad when you push me for an answer. Sometimes I don't want to talk, okay?"
"Most of the time you don't want to talk unless I do push you -- which I haven't this time. I asked a simple question earlier, because you're back to avoiding me again. You told me to fuck off."
Again, I didn't reply. Everything I wanted to say choked me silent and minutes slipped by until finally she rose to her feet and stalked off, got half the length of the plaza and turned around to come back, kicking me in the hip. Hard. It hurt and I exploded to my feet, grabbing her arm to do . . . I didn't know what. Vastly different impulses warred in my gut, so I yanked her close and glared. We were exactly of a height. "Leave. Me. Alone."
"Why?" The tone was mocking, and I could see that she was as afraid as she was angry.
"You ask 'why' too fucking much."
"Because you're a goddamn stubborn ass of a man who can't ever give me a straight answer."
"That's right! I can't. I can't, Jean, I can't. I don't know how."
"Are you in love with me?"
It wasn't what I'd expected her to say, so I blurted out a completely incriminating accusation. "Don't read my mind!"
"You are, aren't you?" Her tone lifted and thinned at once. She knew she was walking on ice. "I've felt it. For days, I've felt it, but you wouldn't ever just say so, you kept insisting on --"
I walked away this time. I was stubborn, furious and scared witless. So I walked away.
"Scott!" she screamed, cutting through the night quiet, and I ignored her to keep walking. After another moment, I heard her feet pound up behind me and then the blows rained down on my back. "I hate you! I hate you!" My reaction was instinctual. Flinching, I spun and backhanded her hard across the side of her head, knocking her sideways. And I froze. I hadn't meant that -- I hadn't meant to hurt her -- but Jean had never learned the passivity of the abused. She came back swinging, punching me hard in the jaw, and all my fight flooded right out of me. If Jean hadn't learned passivity, I had, and I sank down on the pebbled concrete to throw arms over my head.
That was all it took. Jean has a terrible temper, but she's not really violent, and seeing me cringing at her feet broke her heart, and her fury. She sank down with me, arms around my shoulders, repeating over and over, "I'm so sorry, I'm so sorry." And maybe that was the only way the whole confrontation could have ended, because God knew, nothing less would have been enough to crack my fearful reserve. "I don't hate you," she said. "I really don't. You just make me so mad, sometimes. I'm in love with you but you make me so mad and scared because I don't know what you feel."
I couldn't answer, but my arms had gone from protecting my head to gripping her hard, crushing her against me, and that would have to be enough answer for now. And it was. We sat on the plaza concrete and held each other for a long time. "I have no idea what the hell I'm doing," I said at one point.
"That makes two of us," she replied.
"I'll make a crappy boyfriend," I went on.
"I don't care."
Finally, when my heart had stopped beating so hard and she seemed to be falling asleep on me, we got to our feet and went back inside. We still didn't say anything. There was too much to say. Instead, we climbed into one of the two beds in the room and fell asleep curled around each other like the night before in the refuge. Exhausted, we didn't wake until almost eleven the next morning and it was awkward when we did, but the worst of the tension had been broken and we held hands when we exited the room, all packed, a tacit agreement to something. What, remained to be seen.
That same afternoon, we took the bus to Thessaloniki, the second-largest city in Greece, where it sat on the Thermaikos Gulf. If Athens had shown its classical roots, Salonika was a Byzantine city. Walking through the old town, every couple of blocks one could find an ancient Orthodox church sunk a few feet down from sidewalk level. This juxtaposition of late-archaic Roman with modern European architecture was a bit jarring. Our hotel sat on Aristotelous Square, one of the busiest areas of the old town, the kind of five-star resort that I still felt guilty occupying, but a full suite with a jacuzzi made up for the guilt. So did the fact I didn't have to sleep with Jean. Since we'd gone from friends to . . . whatever we were . . . the idea of sleeping alone in the same room with her scared the bejeesus out of me, but asking either of us to sleep with Warren was no less uncomfortable now than it had been a week ago. Maybe he understood that, because it was Warren who insisted on flexing his muscles of privilege to rent a suite, not rooms.
Since all of us were tired, we saved sight-seeing until the next day, yet facing Jean that second morning was as difficult as it had been the first, with the state of our relationship still nebulous. On the bus north, I'd sat with Hank while she'd sat by Warren. Certainly, Hank and Warren had grasped that the lay of the land was changing, but graciously refrained from comment until we'd worked out the details. Unfortunately, change had never been easy for me, and I found it hard to meet Jean's eyes for more than a few seconds. Yet if we were walking side-by-side, I'd reach for her hand before long, or she for mine. And I kept finding myself grinning like an idiot for no good reason, only to begin trembling with anxiety a few minutes later. I wished I could talk to Jon, or even the professor, but they were half a world away. I was on my own.
When shops began to close down at noon, Jean and I finally took off alone. We weren't hungry for lunch, and for the second time that day, wound up walking down to the White Tower on the harbor, an Ottoman structure that made a stark contrast to the 1960s high-rises behind it. It was crawling with seagulls, and tourists toting cameras. Souvenir kiosks sold little Greek flags, postcards, fishermen's hats, miniature Byzantine icons, and cheap, chintzy replicas of pseudoclassical artwork. We paid no attention to any of it, just walked with fingers intertwined, letting the physical speak because neither of us knew how to start this conversation about the future. Jean had bought some bread and was feeding the gulls, who were aggressive and loud and crowding too close, making her nervous. Annoyed with them, I finally took the loaf from her and threw it as far as I could into the water. They arrowed after and left us alone. "Damn birds," I muttered. Like a doe, she watched me with those great, dark eyes, and hugged herself -- all the cheerful forcefulness that I typically associated with her having fled somewhere between yesterday and today. I stared back, unable to look away. Time stuttered, snagging on the moment, and I blurted out, "This has to go slow."
"I know," she replied.
"I've never had . . . this." I made a helpless gesture to indicate the two of us.
"I know that, too. I knew all that, going in."
"Why do you even want to pursue this?"
"Because I'm in love with you."
And there it was, again. But -- "Why isn't friendship enough anymore?"
"Is it enough for you?" She turned my question back on me even as she turned to look at me while we walked along the boardwalk fronting the rocky beach.
"But I can't imagine what you see in me!" I practically shouted it, and she flinched.
Wind off the gulf blew her hair as she said, "I've told you before why I love you."
"As a friend. You've told me why you love me as a friend, and I've always found it -- I don't know -- hard to believe, but okay, I've accepted that you do. But more than that? I don't get it."
She looked down, arms still crossed over her chest like a shield. "What do you want me to say, Scott? I admire you, I like talking to you -- I think you're funny -- and you've always been there for me. We share the same interests. I don't know what else to say to convince you how I feel."
She sounded tired, and I knew I was frustrating her with my stubborn negativity, but I simply found it too incredible to believe. "You could feel all those things with simple friendship. Why do you want more?"
In response, she actually sighed. "I don't know if you want to hear why. I don't know if it'd upset you. Back in Delphi, you said being desired bothered you."
And I had said that, but everything had changed between now and then. It wasn't just anyone; it was Jean, and I was surprised that the 'who' made so much difference. "I want to hear why."
She nodded, but didn't speak immediately. Finally, she confessed, "When you walk into a room, it makes my heart rate go up. I get silly around you sometimes because I can't think straight -- I feel like I'm twelve, not twenty-two. You're the most beautiful man I've ever seen -- yes, even more than Warren, and when I look at you, I just feel . . . this whole jelly-in-the-belly thing."
My mouth had dropped open. "You really feel all that? For me?"
"Agh!" She tore at her hair, half in play, half serious. "Yes!" Then she dropped her hands to stare at my astonished face. "But do you love me?"
Helplessly, I just nodded.
"The same way? You feel those same things?" I nodded again, and her face lit up, transformed in the bright Greek sun. It was clear that she hadn't been as certain about my feelings as I'd assumed, and her own need for reassurance overcame my insecurities far better than all her assertions or protests. Reaching out, I took her hand and drew her up toward a modern memorial for Alexander the Great. Bronze shields and spears flanked a bronze statue on a plinth, while off to one side stretched a bas relief of Alexander facing the Persian king, Darius, fronted by a marble bench. We sat there, out of the way of tourists and joggers, and I stretched out my arms along the back. She curled up beside me, watching my face, but I stared resolutely forward, unable to look at her as I said this. "I'm not a romantic, or a poet, but if I ever lost you, I wouldn't know what to do with myself. That probably sounds stupidly pessimistic, but it's how I think. I lost my parents, I lost my brother, and until recently, I've lost most of the people who've been good to me. It's hard for me to believe I won't lose the rest of you, even if I know there's no logical reason to assume it. But I could bear losing all of them except you. I'd never let anything happen to you, Jean; it'd rip out my heart." Then I laughed to hear myself. "And wow -- that was pretty corny, wasn't it?"
"Sometimes," she said, voice thick, "a little corn is a good thing."
I glanced over at her face, so close to mine. She was smiling, despite teary eyes. Jean's a sap, but it made me smile, too, to realize I'd said something right. We shifted so I could curl an arm around her shoulders and she could bury her face against my neck. If people still moved up and down the boardwalk to our right, none approached the statue, either disinterested or granting us what privacy they could. Although acutely conscious of our exposure, it was the very public aspect that kept me from bolting in terror. It set boundaries, and I needed boundaries for my baby steps. Her mouth pressed feather kisses against the skin of my neck as her fingers gripped my shoulder and my head was turned towards her. Every now and then, I brushed lips over her hair or brow or temple, but I wasn't ready for more, even if my body pressured me to seek it. Like a raptor, I was plunging from a great height toward something barely glimpsed below.TOIOS GAR PHILOTHTOS ERWS UPO KARDIEN ELIUSTHEIS; POLLH GAR' AKHLUN OMMATWN EXEUEN, KLEPSAS DE STHTHEWN HAPALAS PHRENAS. Such passionate desire twisted its way beneath my heart that it poured a thick mist across my eyes and stole the wit out of my mind.
For the rest of our stay in Salonika, I was distracted and preoccupied, conflicted and ecstatic. Sometimes I couldn't take my eyes off Jean. Sometimes I couldn't bear to look at her. I dreamed of her constantly and worried that she might pick up on my fantasies. But if she did, she said nothing. I wondered, too, if she had fantasies about me, and that thought excited me as much as it put me off. I wanted to be wanted, at least by this one person, at least some of the time.
For the most part, we'd spent our vacation looking at museums and sites, or enjoying the beach, like typical tourists, yet Salonika was a modern European city much more so than Athens, and our last night there, Warren and Jean decided they wanted to go clubbing. Neither Hank nor I were particularly interested, if for differing reasons, yet we also weren't inclined to leave them to their own devices. So after a continentally late dinner, we wandered about, stumbling upon a little basement club from which we could feel pounding drums through the concrete sidewalk. The neon sign was broken, the club's name only half-lit, and it all looked old and out-of-the-way, and clearly not meant for tourists -- so naturally, Jean and Warren pulled us down the crumbling steps inside. The music was hard and angry, and in Greek, the tables small, the lights flashing in red, blue, orange, and purple, the air hot and almost too smoke-thick to breathe. Bodies had been crammed in like sardines, and the band, called Frozen Flame (according to the stencil on the bass drum), segued straight from Greek into Def Leppard's "Pour Some Sugar on Me." I almost laughed, and Warren had somehow found us a table meant for two that we made work for four. We seemed to be the only non-Greeks in the place, and stood out for our American-cut clothing - - Warren and Jean in club finery, Hank in his usual JC Penny's polos, and me in Gap grunge.
Jean danced until the band took a break. I dislike dancing, and was happy to let Warren keep her company on the floor. Like me, Hank doesn't dance, either; he thinks he looks silly. I don't think I look silly; I just don't like having my body stared at. But I didn't mind watching Jean undulate to the music, and was glad I was sitting down, my crotch concealed beneath the table. When the band -- made up almost entirely of women -- finally left the stage, Jean and Warren returned to our table and Jean downed her whole beer at once. "Thirsty?" I asked, laughing.
"How about water?"
"Yeah, water'd be good." And she took off through the crowded bodies, headed for the bar. The rest of us shook heads and discussed what to do in Kavalla, our next stop, but when Jean hadn't returned in twenty minutes, I grew nervous and went to look for her.
The club was deceptively small, and I quickly found her near the bar with her glass of water, talking to two of the band members, whose English -- like that of many young Greeks -- was excellent. "Him!" she said as I approached, shaking her finger at me.
"'Him' what?" I asked, dubious.
"She says you're a singer," one of the Greek women explained.
Doubly dubious now, I glanced from Jean to the girl, who offered a hand and introduced herself as Eleni, and the other, her sister, was Athena. The juxtaposition of a real woman named after the goddess standing beside my own personal incarnation took me a little aback. "I sing for an a capella group back at my college," I explained.
Eleni smiled a little, as if she knew I was downplaying it. "For Yale. She said the singing groups there were fighting over you."
"Not quite." I was blushing and glad for the foggy darkness of the place.
"Yes, they were!" Jean shoved at me.
I rolled my eyes. The beer had gone straight to her head. "I like your music," I said to the Greeks.
"You want to sit in?"
"Huh?" It sounded foolish, but that had been the last question I'd have expected from an utter stranger. "Me?"
Behind my glasses, I blinked. "Uh, thanks, but I'm not sure we'd know the same songs."
"Get Hank to play for you," Jean said. "They have a keyboard."
I tried to protest further, but was overruled by three cheerful women, and thus ended up on the stage along with Hank. I doubted Redhot and Blue show tunes would go over with this crowd, so I picked something a bit rougher, but that Hank could manage on keyboards alone. "The original of this was written and sung by a woman, so I'm changing some of the pronouns," I said into the mic after the lead singer, Athena, had introduced me (in Greek). The audience seemed happy (and slightly drunk), willing to put up with a stranger on stage, and even if Hank started on keyboards alone, before long the drummer had picked up the rhythm, and the guitar, the chords. The blues aren't all that complex.I seen myself with a dirty face, I cut my luck with a dirty ace, I leave the light on ... Daddy ain't that bad he just plays rough, I ain't that scarred when I'm covered up I leave the light on, I leave the light on. Little boy hiding underneath the bed, was it something I did, must be something I said I leave the light on, I better leave the light on. Cause I wanna love, I wanna live, yeah, I don't know much about it, I never did, oh no ... 17 and I'm all messed up inside, I cut myself just to feel alive I leave the light on, I leave the light on, 21 on the run, on the run, on the run from myself, from myself and everyone ... Cause I wanna love, 'cause I wanna live, I don't know much about it, I never did. I don't know what to do, can the damage be undone? I swore to God I'd never be what I've become. Lucky stars and fairy tales, I'm gonna bathe myself in a wishin' well, Pretty scars from cigarettes, I never will forget, I never will forget, I'm still afraid to be alone, wish that moon would follow me home, I leave the light on, I leave the light on. I ain't that bad, I'm just messed up, I ain't that sad but I'm sad enough ...
It was clear this wasn't quite what they were used to here, but they applauded kindly anyway when I'd finished. Yet it wasn't the reaction of the audience that struck me -- it was Jean's. She had tears in her eyes when I rejoined her on the floor. "Oh, Scott, you are my light."
"It's just a song," I replied, embarrassed.
"You picked it," she pointed out, which was true enough, and I accepted her hug, her face buried in my neck. Hank had started to join us, but seeing that, he gave me a faint smile and turned away, back to the table to join Warren.
"Come on," I told her, "people are watching."
"Let 'em. Can't I hug my boyfriend?"
"No, not really." Lifting her face, she smiled at me, as bright as the stage lights, then she raised her hand to touch the side of my face, stroking my cheek with her fingers. "You're not messed up inside."
"I told you -- it's just a song. And I am messed up."
She shook her head, and the pads of her fingers were very soft; I couldn't look away from her mouth. "Take your glasses off," she said. The band had started up again, and I could barely hear her, but I could read her lips.
"Jean -- it's dangerous . . ."
I trust you, she sent to get past the noise.
Her smile widened. But I do. And I want to see your face -- your whole face.
You can't see my eyes anymore.
That's okay. I remember them. And reaching up -- slowly -- her hands went to the earpieces on the glasses. Eyes shut? I nodded, and felt her lift the glasses away.STATHI KANTA, PHILOS ... KAI TAN EP' OSSOIS AMPETASON KHARIN. Stand facing me, dear friend, and uncover the beauty in your eyes.
Being unable to see made me anxious, but I could feel her breath on my face, slightly bitter from the beer. Do you trust me? she asked.
Yes. It came without hesitation.
I'd never do anything to hurt you, you know that?
Yes. At least, I knew she'd never intentionally do anything to hurt me. I felt her hand back on my cheek. Unable to see, and unable to hear beyond the pound of the rock music that echoed in my heels and chest and teeth, I was reduced to touch -- her hand on my skin, her breath against my mouth, my arms around her waist, her body pressed to mine at hip and thigh. She slid a finger into my mouth and I licked it, shocking myself with the sensual joy of that. I wanted more and held her closer.
You're so beautiful, she sent, and I don't just mean your face.
So are you, I sent back, pulled enough out of myself without the glasses to confess what went through my head. You're the most beautiful thing in my world.
Can I kiss you? I don't want to startle you, but is it okay if I kiss you?
So she did. And I kissed back. And I wasn't scared. And it didn't feel dirty.
"You paid a drachma for a peach?"
"What's wrong with that? It's what? Fifty cents?"
Jean held up her purchase for my inspection. It was fuzzy and perfect, not a bruise or a mar. "I saw it and couldn't resist," she said.
The two of us stood near the docks of the port city of Kavalla, where fishing boats of various sizes had been tied up at harbor. Painted blue, white and red, they looked small and sea-battered beside the one great cruise ship anchored off shore. Now and then, a blast from the cruise ship's horn could be heard all through the town, echoing off the hills -- north, east, and west -- that encircled the city. On the old acropolis above squatted a Norman fort, which Hank and Warren had earlier headed up to see, leaving Jean and me to meander through the lower town, buying bread and cheese for lunch. And a peach.
"I'll share," Jean said now, and took a bite, then held it out to me. There was laughter in her eyes, enticing me, and I remembered our kiss the night before last, in Thessaloniki. Reaching out, I snagged her hand to pull it up to my mouth -- but not to bite the peach. Instead, I let my tongue lick off a trail of juice that had slid over the soft skin of her wrist. She gasped, just a little, and started coughing, having inhaled her bite.
I slapped her back. "You okay?"
"Bastard," she said after a moment, wiping away tears from her fit.
"You offered to share."
She looked up to meet my eyes and I smiled -- just a little -- overcome by feelings I barely knew how to articulate. My head was pounding, and so was my heart. After a moment, she held up the peach to my mouth once more, and leaning in, I bit into it. It was as sweet as it looked.
So we ate our peach, and our hands were sticky afterward. We washed them in a little dribble of fresh water from a pipe, and I flicked droplets at her. She screamed and laughed and flicked me back. The day was hot, the sun bright, and after three weeks here, we were both golden from it, even Jean's fair skin. A breeze off the ocean brought the rich smell of the sea and tangled our hair. It was a day for the senses. In deference to the heat, Jean had put on a light calico dress that was probably some shade of rust or brown. It dipped low in front, showing cleavage, and my eyes kept dipping, too. I wondered if she'd worn it on purpose.
I wanted her. I wanted her and I didn't, and that confused me. It had taken days just to get used to holding her hand, and almost a week to let her kiss me. As with everything, I fought myself. But this day felt different, as if the light itself were magic, and I smiled more often than I frowned. We'd started up towards the Norman fort, too, but never made it, becoming sidetracked by watching an icon painter outside his little shop in some unknown alley. He worked with dark colors and gold, illumining the grim expression of some young martyr on a white horse. St. George -- the painter told us -- a Roman legionnaire who'd converted to Christianity and left the army because he could no longer support pagan rites, and was killed for it.
"I thought he was an English knight who fought dragons?" I said.
The man laughed. "You Americans and the fantasies. Giorgios was a Greek! The dragon was the Emperor Diocletian."
St. George looks like you, Jean sent to me.
Not today, I replied. All my dragons are walking politely on leashes.
The glance she turned on me was speculative. Really?
We moved on. We should have been looking for Warren and Hank, but didn't. We existed in our own private world today, fingers linked as we wound through the steep roads below the acropolis. Around mid-afternoon, we stopped in a little taverna with white-washed walls and a porch beneath a vine-covered arbor. I ordered a frappe, having become addicted to the things in the past three weeks, and Jean had yogurt with Thassian honey. She fed some to me. "This stuff is ambrosia," she told me, but I thought she was, streaked by variegated sunlight falling through the leaves above us. She was my goddess, my saint, my Vargas girl with the red hair and white dress -- everything I'd ever wanted -- and I couldn't take my eyes off of her. But it was her expression that stole my breath. It held the same kind of helpless adoration I knew I turned on her, and to have her look at me that way made my heart ache. I'd wanted so long simply to be accepted, that to be adored stunned me. For whatever reason, this woman loved me and I've never come so close to crying for joy. Maybe she read a little of it in my expression, because she smiled, sweet and whole, and her eyes danced. I'm sure we made an amusing sight for anyone watching, staring at each other with such love-drunk intensity -- and I didn't want to be around people anymore. I just wanted to be alone with Jean, though up till now, being alone with Jean had scared me to death. I'd turned some mental corner. "Let's get out of here," I said.
We paid and left the taverna to meander down empty streets. In this part of town above the harbor, tourists were elsewhere and locals were napping. Arriving in Greece, I'd had to get used to a different rhythm where shops opened at eight, not ten, and were shut down by one, to reopen (maybe) in late afternoon. Greeks worked only to earn enough to enjoy life. No one here bought into the protestant work ethic and somewhere inside, my north-European immigrant soul twitched, even while I recognized the sanity of their approach. Just now, I was grateful for it, since it left Jean and me to ourselves, arm-in-arm on quaint, narrow roads with wooden houses sporting brightly painted doors. A black-and-white cat sat on someone's porch, blinking lazily in the sun, and I backed Jean up against an old brick retaining wall, aggressive and shy at once, my hands twisted in the soft cotton of her dress. The moment hung suspended as we shared breath, and this was much more powerful than the other night. Today, I wanted, and bending in, we nuzzled our way until lips met. I'd never kissed anyone like this, or been kissed so -- because I wanted to. Her arms were tight around my shoulders and mine around her body, and I was aware of everything -- the cry of gulls overhead, that stupid cruise ship's horn, the salt in the air, the softness of her breasts, the sun baking my hair. I let my hands fall to her hips after a while and she pressed one thigh between my legs. I was hard inside my pants and knew she could feel it, but that was okay. Her breath was heavy in the pauses between kisses, and so was mine. This was what lust felt like, lust and love both, and I didn't care. She licked her way down my neck and one of my hands dropped even lower, sliding up her bare thigh under the short skirt of her calico dress. She bit me -- not hard, but hard enough, and it snapped me out of my desire-drunk fugue. "Don't bite."
"Sorry." She licked the spot to soothe it and drew my hand from her thigh up to the side of her breast. I didn't know if this was too fast or not, but she leaned into me, moaning a little as my thumb found her nipple under the cloth. One of her own hands reached to rub my erection inside my pants and the knot in my center exploded. Blood boiled and the very air became hot in my lungs. Bending, I ran lips and tongue over the exposed skin of her plunging neckline. But she was suddenly pushing me back, straightening her dress and shaking tangles from her hair. Dazed, I could only blink as she hissed, "Someone's coming."
"Oh." And someone was. I could hear voices, and ran a hand through my own hair as a pair of thirty-somethings descended stairs a block down from us and turned onto the street. I felt silly and ashamed. I'd sucked off men for forty-five bucks in an alley, and Jean deserved better than that.
She'd recovered more quickly than me. Taking my hand, she smiled as we passed the two couples, and after some distance when we could no longer hear their voices she asked, "You want to go back to the room?"
I rubbed my forehead. Blood had mostly returned to where it belonged and the fuzz was clearing from my brain. "I don't know," I told her honestly. "Everything below the belt does."
Twisting a little, she laid a palm over my heart. "How about here?"
"That, too," I confessed. "It's just this" -- I tapped my head -- "that isn't so sure." I didn't have any illusion about what would happen if we went back. There'd been no suites in our hotel here, just a spectacular balcony view of the port and acropolis, and our reservations had been for two rooms. Jean had considered taking a third, except it would have been on a different floor, not side-by-side with the other two, so we'd decided to room together again. Last night, we'd been too tired after a late dinner to do more than sleep. Now, everything had changed. "What about you?" I asked her.
She tilted her head sideways in that way she had when uncertain, and with her eyes on the brick roadway, she gripped my hand tightly. "I want to go back."
Those five words hung heavy between us, and I couldn't quite breathe. "Jean -- are you sure?"
"Yes." She glanced up at me. "But it's your call. You said this needed to go slow. You decide. No rush."
"Tell that to my body." And I didn't just mean my groin. My heart had started pounding and my stomach was doing handstands.
She stopped walking and turned to face me. We were alone again in an empty street, standing close but not touching beyond clasped hands. "I don't want to do anything you're not ready to do."
Her words won a sly smile from me. "Isn't that supposed to be the guy's line?"
Frowning, she shoved me lightly in the chest. "Chauvinist. I just meant, you know, I didn't want to put you under any pressure."
"What about you? Are you ready for this?"
Her cheeks dimpled. "I've been ready for weeks." And she moved in, sliding an arm around me to rest her head on my shoulder. "Don't worry about me." And that definitely didn't help me to think clearly. Whatever she'd said, the pressure was on, yet a part of me wondered if we weren't being too deliberate, making mountains out of molehills?
"Let's go back to the room," I said softly, nuzzling her ear.
"Okay," and she stepped away, tugging me by the hand in the direction we'd been walking, but I dragged her to a stop.
"You won't get there headed that way." She rolled her eyes, yet it broke the tension a bit, and I said, "If I turned you around three times outside the hotel door, you'd be lost."
"See?" She poked my side. "Proof that we were meant for each other. I'd be lost outside without you, and you'd stay holed up inside all the time without me."
It was true, and neatly defined our relationship, and I supposed it inevitable that I would end up with Jean. No one else could have reached past all my doors and walls and masks. She knew everything about me there was to know (almost) and was still around, smiling at me like I'd hung the sun above us.
So we went back, and the thing about being deliberate meant I couldn't avoid the realities of the situation, however unromantic they might be. My semen was deadly to anyone but me, and nearing our hotel, I sent Jean upstairs with a kiss and an aspecific, "Need stuff."
Her dark eyes crinkled with amusement. "They say you can buy almost anything you need at those." She pointed to one of the ubiquitous sidewalk kiosks, set up near the hotel entrance. "Europe is a civilized place." Then she left me, and I stood there hesitating, but unsure why. God knew, I'd bought enough condoms, yet I associated them with my former occupation, and that took the magic out, made it too mundane, too familiar -- small and dirty and cheap like a business transaction. Walking up to the guy inside the little booth, I told him what I wanted, he produced it, and I paid. A business transaction. Sack in hand, I went inside and took the elevator up. And there alone in the hall, things came crashing down on me. I plopped onto the tile floor outside the door and couldn't make myself go in.
This was just another transaction, wasn't it? We'd have sex and then what? Women wanted romance, men wanted sex, and that's where the love stories ended. Neither of them wanted what came after, but that's what I wanted -- to sleep all night beside somebody and be held in the morning when I woke. To share breakfast and conversation and the laundry. I wanted a place in the world, and a partner to share it. My body wanted sex sometimes, but my heart wanted a place forever, and I didn't know if I was ready for this. I'd climbed almost 10,000 feet past the cloud line to Zeus' Throne, but I couldn't open a door on the sixth floor of a B-grade hotel.
Hello, Mount Olympus.
The door opened for me instead, inviting, and Jean came out to squat down beside me. "I love you," she said.
"For now," I replied, hugging my knees closer.
"Forever," she countered.
"Forever's a long time." I didn't want to believe her, even while I did.
"I know. Come inside. I want to jump your bones."
And I burst out laughing because it was so silly and blunt, and put all the deliberation in proper perspective. She wanted me, and I let her lead me inside, and somewhere in the next half hour, I stopped being ashamed for wanting her, too. "Do you dream of me?" she asked, smiling wistfully as if she hoped the answer was 'yes.' I nodded, getting a kiss for the confession.
"You don't mind?" I asked.
"I dream of you."
That was good enough for me. She let me take off her dress and stripped me out of my shirt, and if I'd seen her near naked before (her swimsuit left little to the imagination), it was a lot different when I was allowed to touch. She showed me how and where, and I taught her to touch a man, as well. This was nothing I'd experienced before, despite how much I knew. "You're a virgin?" she asked at one point, voice soft and surprised. We were wrapped around each other on the bed, nothing between us now but a single white sheet. I'd laid it over her body from crown to toes, then climbed on top to kiss her through it, stroking her chest and thighs.
Bending, I whispered near her ear, "Technically, yes."
Her hands freed themselves from beneath the covering and fumbled till they found my cock -- the first time she'd touched me bare. I breathed in and she said, "Take your glasses off."
"It's not safe."
"Look, I'm more afraid I'll knock them off than I am afraid you'll blink." She had a point, so I closed my eyes and removed the glasses, reduced to touch and sound while she rid herself of the sheet to lay me on my back, hovering above, blocking the light from the window. I could feel her little breasts brush my chest and her breath overrode the roar of traffic on the highway below. The air in the room was cooler than the afternoon had been, and the sweat on our skin had dried. She tasted slightly of salt, and kissed my collarbone and sternum, my nipples and the space below my ribs. It made my cock jump and she wrapped her hand around it, moving the loose skin up and down. Lying passive bothered me and I raised my head, nosing until my mouth found one breast. "Oh," she said, then was reduced to whining. Her hand stroked faster, and she shifted to cover the cock head with her other hand, circling the slit with her finger and teasing the flare around the edge, the pad of her thumb settling in the frenulum and rubbing back and forth.
It sent hot sparks all through my belly and I jerked my hips in rhythm with her hand, the pressure building heavy in my groin. I let her breast go to say, "Keep that up, and I'll come."
"I thought that was the idea?"
"Not without a condom. It's not safe." I could barely talk.
"You said that about the glasses. I told you it was safe. There are no cuts on my hands, Scott."
"Are you sure?"
"You worry too much. Trust me, okay?"
There was more fear, and more frustration, in my words than I'd intended, and her hands on me stilled, moving to my hips instead. She kissed my shoulder and I could feel her soft, short hair on my skin. "Shh," she whispered and laid down beside me, half blanketing me with her body, one hand tucked beneath her and the free one stroking me from collarbone to belly, but no lower. My blood still pounded and I wasn't sure which was worse -- if she'd kept going, or having her stop now. I rolled on top and thrust against the soft skin of her thigh. "Christ," I muttered. I'd never needed like this and it was just about release now. My eyes were squeezed shut, trying to told back more than the beams.DUSTHNOS EGKEIMAI POTHWI APSUKHOS, KHALEPHISI THEWN ODUNHISI HEKHTI PEPARMENOS DI' OSTEWN. Wretched I lie here as if dead with terrible desire inflicted by the gods, struck right through my bones.
She seemed to realize we'd gone too far, and began kissing the side of my face, pushing my head back so she could get to my mouth, and my hips up so she could get to my cock, offering her clasped hands for me to push inside, gripping me tightly, a thumb back over the endslit pressing on slick, hot skin. So sensitive, almost unbearable, and her tongue was in my mouth, sawing along the edge of mine; then she squeezed just a little and I ejaculated all over her fingers. But instead of release, I felt foolish, dirty and rushed -- as if this had been a quick hand-job in a bathroom stall. It wasn't what I'd imagined, and I wanted to weep in humiliated frustration. "Shh," she said again, freeing one hand to wipe it on the sheet, then stroke my spine. "Shh." She was kissing my face again. "Relax a minute. It's okay."
"It's not okay!" I snarled. "I didn't mean --"
"Shh." The hand came around from my back to cover my mouth. "You were all keyed up. Partly my fault; I'm sorry. Now we can start over again and take our time."
And those words reminded me that this wasn't a quick hand-job in a bathroom stall, and suddenly, I needed to see her. Reaching, I fumbled for my glasses on the night stand. She helped me to get them on, then kissed the end of my nose, smiling. "That was the appetizer to take the edge off the hunger pains."
I barked with embarrassed laughter at that. "Jesus, Jean!"
"Hey -- I'm a med student who knows how a nineteen-year-old man's body works. Even yours." Her grin turned impish. "I'm particularly interested in studying yours."
So we studied each other the rest of the afternoon, and this was my initiation. My mystery. Once again, my self-knowledge came not from Apollo, but Dionysos, and she made me feel like a god as I raised myself above her, her thighs parting to accept me, and it was really going to happen. This wasn't a fantasy. (Fantasies didn't include awkward poking and pain.) But finally I pierced her, and she cried out, even as her legs came up around me. I felt enclosed and cherished. This was what it was about, this fumbling, naked, precious acceptance. Her whole body embraced me, and I arched into her. She made me whole in a panting rhythm older than life, the little death that led to rebirth. Euphoric and shaking with excruciating pleasure, I poured my soul into her, then collapsed in her arms.
After a long minute, my face still buried in her neck, I remembered to ask, "Did I hurt you?"
"Not any more than it required." Her voice was thick and amused.
"Shit, that sounds so fucking pessimistic." I lifted myself away and up on an elbow, careful as I withdrew so I didn't hurt her worse. "Glasses?"
I heard her reach for them, then hand them to me. "Well," she said, "there's this little thing called a hymen, and you have to break it, plus stretch me out. I understand it gets better with practice."
Putting on my glasses, I studied her face. She didn't seem upset, if perhaps a bit stunned, her skin flushed and her lips bruised from kisses. "Anatomy doesn't seem goddamn fair," I said, brushing the tangles off her brow.
The back of her hand came up to stroke my cheek. "It's not all about the orgasm, you know. Having you inside, just . . . wow. Emotionally wow." Turning on her side then (a little gingerly), she snuggled down against my chest, muttering, "Love you."
"I love you, too," I whispered, kissing her hair, and that was the first time I'd said it straight out without hedging, and even if she'd known I did, the verbalizing was important, giving my feelings concrete reality. I saw a smile curve her lips. We didn't move for a while, but I felt sticky and wanted to clean up, so finally I rose, pausing to look down at her, half-asleep where she lay. Beneath her thigh, there was a small red stain on the cheap white sheet and matching streaks on my condom. I touched the sheet stain, upset again by what seemed the injustice of her pain for my pleasure. Did sex always have to fucking hurt somebody?
As if sensing the direction of my thoughts, her eyes fluttered open and she reached out to push my hand away from the bloodstain. "I wanted this as much as you did. Now go clean up so I can have a turn."
"Are you reading my mind?"
"Jean -- "
"Okay, a little, but only because you're shouting."
And I recalled several times over the past three weeks when she'd seemed to know just what to say -- when to push, when to pull back, and instead of heading for the bathroom, I sat down again on the edge of the bed. "How much have you been reading me lately?"
Twisting her head to glare up, she said, "I haven't, not like you mean. I never read your thoughts without permission, Scott -- not unless you're projecting so loudly I can't avoid it, and mostly you don't do that. But sometimes, yeah, I tap into your feelings, just a little. I haven't wanted to upset or push you when you weren't ready, and I hate second-guessing your silences."
"Sometimes I just don't know what to say."
"I know." She reached her hand out to me and I met it with my own, lacing fingers through hers. "Your thoughts are always yours, unless you invite me in."
"Thank you." And I squeezed her hand, then released it to go clean up, trading places with her when I was done. She'd taken the sheet with her, though the sudden attack of modesty seemed silly. Stretching out on the bed, I waited, and alone for a few minutes, my mind darted in all directions while I stared out at the setting sun that bathed the room in bright light and shadows.
To say I felt different would have been both a clich, and not entirely true. After Jack Winters had raped me, I'd felt different -- stunned and ashamed and spoilt like bad meat. I'd never gotten over it. I never would. I'd simply learned to live with it, and everything that had followed. What I felt now wasn't that kind of change, and I wouldn't spin out some trite line about having been made a man today. How fatuous.
No, today I'd been given something -- and not Jean's virginity. If a woman gave a man her virginity, where was he supposed to put it? Jean's virginity wasn't my trophy, and mine (however technical) wasn't hers. What I'd been given was a new panorama. I hadn't changed -- my world had, because it now had Jean irrevocably in it, and room for trust, and maybe hope. And love. And if I hadn't given her my virginity, I had given her my vulnerability, and that was far more precious. I'd been initiated indeed, and the mystery revealed was that I could offer up my heart without regrets. I smiled to think on that.
The door to the little bathroom opened and Jean came out, trailing that sheet like the train of a wedding gown. Her expression was tentative, until she saw my grin, then she grinned back and moved towards me. And as she crossed in front of the balcony windows, the sunlight caught her, haloing her willowy figure like a gold-washed icon, fired passion-red to my sight.
And that shall always be my clearest memory of Greece, and my sweetest of Jean, with the sun setting over the Aegean behind her and the light of a trembling joy in her face.
But in keeping with my unerring ability to shoot myself in the damn foot as soon as something good happened to me, I woke up beside her the next morning in the grip of a nervy remorse and inchoate anger that was the complete opposite of the previous day's joy and hope.
Rather to my surprise, I'd discovered that I liked sex -- which may seem the most absurd observation ever, given that I was nineteen, healthy, and in bed with the woman I'd been fantasizing about for the past two years. But of course, I had to drag all my flaky shit into bed with me, which complicated everything.
Jean and I had made love -- or flat fucked like bunnies, really -- three times the previous afternoon, to the point that she'd been too sore even to think about walking to dinner. So I'd gone to the door to inform Hank and Warren that she 'wasn't feeling well' and then sent them packing. They hadn't argued, even if they'd both looked inclined to ask questions. Unprepared as yet to go public with the full truth, I'd shut the door (quietly) in their faces. Then Jean and I had fucked again, because when it came to sex, I had all the self-discipline of a two-year-old -- one of several unpleasant things I discovered about myself, another being that I wasn't much of a lover.
Prostitution makes poor preparation, whatever the porn industry would lead one to believe. You turn your body off in order to make it through. It's all about the john -- either pleasing him so he pays you, or pleasing him so he doesn't beat the crap out of you. Thus, when I turned my body back on, I had to turn my brain off in order to avoid the same sort of flashback I'd suffered with the condoms -- a reminder of my former profession that short-circuited everything. If I wanted to stay hard, I had to permit my body to take over, which didn't lend itself to any real sensitivity to my partner. Yet Jean had been patient and gentle and focused on me yesterday, even though it had been her first time and my one-thousandth-and-whatever-the-fuck-it-was.
Therefore, when I woke on the morning after, the first thought to ambush me wasn't my happiness, or her beauty, or even that I needed a smoke and some coffee. The first thought was that I'd defiled her and screwed over our friendship forever. So I hit the bathroom for a piss, brushed my teeth, put on rumpled clothes, left a note on my pillow that read, "Sorry," and fled the room. First, I headed north into the maze of little shops catering to tourists, then bought a pack of Greek cigarettes (harsh and sharp, but with enough nicotine to pump the whole of New York) and drank bitter Greek coffee while I smoked them all on the patio of a little cafe. I watched the morning surge of crowds moving to and fro, and once or twice, a few girls tried to flirt with me. The second time it happened, I shot them a bird.
I was feeling sour, angry and mean, and debating whether or not I had enough courage to face my friends ever again, or should just shoot myself now. (All right, so I was feeling sour, angry, mean and melodramatic.)
And it was in that frame of mind that Jean, walking a bit carefully, found me -- Jean in a towering rage. Yet that was what I needed. If I'd been given pity or sympathy, I'd have taken it and run, and learned nothing, but the fury in Jean's face said I wasn't getting either, or any quarter, for that matter. "You," she bellowed when still halfway across the street, stalking over to the rail surrounding the cafe, porch and gripping it with white knuckles, "are the biggest ASS I have ever met!"
I dropped my eyes and stubbed out my (second-to-last) cigarette, pulling the final one from the pack. "I know," I said, lighting it.
She pursed her lips and turned her back on me for a minute, then fished in the pocket of her skirt (the same pretty one with sunflowers that she'd worn in Delphi) and turned to slap down the 'sorry' note in front of me on the small, round table. She still stood on one side of the rail while I sat on the other. "What the hell does that mean?"
Picking up the note, I set the burning end of my cigarette to it and watched it turn to black ash. "Apparently nothing," I replied. I was feeling fey and fatalistic, and acting ridiculous, which I knew even at the time, and still persisted in it. I was aware that both caf, patrons and strangers walking the street were watching us. Unlike the afternoon before, it was the height of business hours and we were putting on an unintentional show.
Jean had leaned over the rail again, close enough to hiss, "What is wrong with you? Did yesterday mean nothing at all?"
She was so mad, her fair skin had gone red and mottled, and I should have seen in that a plea to be reassured, but had sunk so far in my own self-pity (and deep-seated uncertainties) that I missed it entirely. Even so, it took me almost a full minute to reply, I was so humiliated and ashamed. Finally, I managed, "The 'sorry' was because I made a colossal mistake yesterday. I can't undo it, though I wish to God I could. I did the absolute worst possible thing to my best friend -- I used you, because I'm a screwed up son of a bitch."
I can't describe the expression that crossed her face. 'Hurt' was too trite; 'crushed' came closer. In a matter of seconds, she went from mottled red to as white as a ghost, and for a moment, I thought she was going to pass out. Her lower lip trembled and her eyes filled even as I watched. "You don't love me," she said, then turned and walked away.TAISI DE PSUKHROS MEN EGENTO THUMOS, PAR D' IEISI TA PTERA ... *But their hearts turned cold and dropped down their wings ...
Everyone is entitled to at least one epiphany in his life, and that was mine. Maybe the day before had opened my eyes to possibilities I'd believed reserved only for other men, but this morning I'd been quite willing to close them again, and it took seeing her heart break in front of me before I really, truly believed that she loved me.
I'd say I'm dense, but that doesn't begin to cover it.
Fortunately, I'd paid for my coffee when I'd bought it, so now, I dropped my cigarette in the ashtray and abandoned my demitasse, shoving back my chair and vaulting over the white rail in a single leap -- to the shock of other patrons and a group of three retired women tourists in the street whom I almost crashed into. In too much of a hurry, I didn't even apologize. "Jean!"
She was only twenty feet away, but kept walking. I caught her right at a corner, practically knocking her down as I grabbed her arms and spun her around to face me. "No," I said, breathless from panic, not the short sprint. "That's wrong. That's all wrong. Goddammit!" Frustrated, I banged the heel of my hand into my forehead. "I am such a stupid, stupid prick." Then I kept banging because I hated myself in that moment. "I love you, dammit. I fucking love you more than I can fucking say." Other people in the street were staring -- or trying not to -- but I was so upset I no longer cared.
She'd grabbed my hand and pulled it away from my head, then gripped the other wrist, too, for good measure. "Stop it, Scott. Stop it." She appeared genuinely worried -- but also still angry, and she was still crying. So was I. She pulled me a little closer to the building, and hands on my shoulders, peered into my face. "But if you love me, then what did you mean back there, that you'd made a colossal mistake and just used me?"
I couldn't look at her and was still crying. Upset, I twisted out of her grip. "It was your first time, but I was just thinking of me -- it was all about me, and I'm a shitty lover and a shitty boyfriend and I don't deserve you. You're my Athena and I'm just Hephaestus. He tried to rape her, y'know, then jacked off on her goddamn leg, and I must disgust you."
She was back to being mad now, and shook me, hissing, "Would you stop it! Just stop it before I slap you!"
It took a minute or three, but I did manage to calm down enough to quit shaking and crying, and how much of my emotionalism had been exacerbated by too much coffee and too many cigarettes? Finally, I wiped my nose and said, "See -- it always ends up being about me. I chased you down to tell you I do love you, and you wind up keeping me from freaking out. I told you, I'm fucking screwed up. You can do better."
"What if I don't want to?"
That made me look at her finally. "What?"
"I don't want to do better than you. It's that simple. So get over it -- you're stuck with me."
In spite of everything, that made me smile, just a little. She'd always had that effect on me: piss me off, drive me around the bend, then make me laugh about it, just a little.
"The question," she said finally, and there was just a bit of the fear back in her face -- wide eyes and a tight mouth -- "is whether you want to be stuck with me? I mean, it goes two ways."
And I was reminded of her utter despair when she'd thought I'd never been in love with her at all. Managing to pull myself out of my own self-absorption for a moment, I cupped her face and kissed the bridge of her nose. "I told you yesterday that you were the most beautiful thing in my world and I wasn't kidding." Then I wrapped her up and held her a minute. "I'm just such a goddamn mess, I don't feel I deserve you."
"Let me be the judge of that, please." It was one part long-suffering, one part reassuring, and one part miffed. She pushed me away. "And God, Scott, I'm sorry, but you stink."
For a minute, I thought she meant metaphorically, not literally. "I've been telling you I stink all morning."
"No, you idiot." She'd put up a hand to pinch her nose. "I mean you stink like a bar -- all those cigarettes and stale coffee and sweat, and I'm sorry, I know how trivial that sounds right now, but I just --" She'd backed up about four steps.
I should probably have been offended, but she was right, and I had to find it funny how the mundane physical could so thoroughly intrude on even the most intense emotional moment. "It's okay. I take it I need a shower?"
"Yes. And so do I, for that matter." She looked off to the side and ran a hand through hair that I only now realized was a bit stringy. "I woke up to find you gone with just that stupid note . . . so I threw on clothes and came after you." She turned back, aquiline nose scrunched up, half in play, but half in real irritation. "You're pretty high maintenance, you know that?"
Embarrassed, I shrugged. "So why, again, do you want to be stuck with me?"
"I love you?"
It was half-playful and maybe even a tad fished for, but still made me blush and look down because I felt so ridiculously grateful. "I love you, too. I've loved you for two years, so never doubt it again, okay?"
"Two years? Really?" She seemed surprised by that. "Why didn't you ever tell me?"
I shot her an exasperated look from behind the glasses, but she shook her head, took my hand, and led me back towards the hotel, weaving through the crowds. No longer a show, we became anonymous again. "You know," she said, "you really are high maintenance, like one of those purebred Dobermans who can't be left alone for very long or they flake out and rip up the furniture."
The comparison -- and the broken tension -- made me laugh. "My girlfriend thinks I'm a dog!"
She elbowed me. "Well, it's true! Our neighbors had a Doberman who couldn't stand to be left alone. When both of them went back to work full-time, the first day they left her, she tore up their bedroom -- literally shredded everything -- then burst through the bedroom window, metal frame and all, and by the time they got home that evening, they found her sitting on the lawn, waiting on them. You get the same way." She eyed me shrewdly. "You angst yourself into the silliest mental places." Before I could react to that, she paused and turned to me.
"Look, I know why. I'm not making fun of you and I do understand. I just" -- she sighed and for the first time, looked truly tired -- "it's draining. I love you so much, and hate to see you beat yourself up all the time. It makes me want to throttle you as much as it makes me want to love you out of it."
The very real honesty of that shot me full of the first reasonable guilt I'd felt all morning, not something trumped out of proportion. I stroked her cheek with my free thumb. "I'm still a fucked up mess, Jean, and I'll probably always be that way somewhat. You don't have to come along for the ride," I told her. "And I'm not saying that to make you feel sorry for me. I'm saying it because I can't promise I won't bust out of the house through a window again. I probably will. It'll get old, you know, but this is what I'm like. I get stupid, I get depressed, and I get possessive even when I don't have any reason to be. The whole time you were with Warren . . ." I put a hand over my glasses in shame. "I was so unbelievably jealous, and didn't want to admit it. I didn't even want to admit why I was jealous. I'm always going to be weird like that." I started to add that I was damaged goods, but knew it would only make her angry, even if it were true.
She was nodding, however, as if unsurprised (and undeterred) by what I was saying. "I know all that. I'm not going into this blind -- I knew from the beginning this wouldn't be smooth sailing. And" -- she grinned -- "I'm a bit flattered that you'd be jealous. I can do without the possessive bit, but it's a compliment, that you'd be jealous -- that I could make you jealous."
The phrasing bothered me. "Don't make me jealous on a regular basis, okay?"
"I wouldn't." And her smile shifted from impish to sweet as she took my hand once more and we began walking across a public square not far from the market where she'd bought the peach the day before.
"What did you mean, you knew 'from the beginning' this wouldn't be smooth sailing?" She'd made it sound as if she'd planned all this. "What beginning?"
Her fingers tightened on mine and our hotel was in sight. "Don't get mad, okay?"
But of course I was starting to. "Just answer the damn question!"
She sighed. "This is why I can't talk to you sometimes."
"Jean . . ."
"Fine! The professor warned me!" Then her voice softened, almost contrite. "Way last fall, after Warren and I broke up. It wasn't just Warren, you know. We both realized we didn't love each other, we were each in love with you. It was . . . pretty crazy."
If I hadn't known that for sure, I'd suspected it, so I said nothing, waiting.
"So I went to talk to Charles about what I was feeling."
"He didn't tell you to stay away from me?" I found it hard to imagine that he'd approve of this, and I hadn't even thought about that, had I? How was I going to tell him?
"Far from it," she said now, and that made me stop dead and stare. "He doesn't make judgments like that. Well, not really. I think part of why he didn't let me sleep in the same bed with Warren last spring was because he knew, even then, that we weren't in love with each other. He wasn't being a prude, like I thought. He was just trying to keep us from making a mistake, without stepping in to tell us we were making a mistake."
"Because you wouldn't have listened."
She grinned. "Exactly."
"So he doesn't think this would be -- is -- a mistake?"
She held my eyes behind the glasses. "He didn't say, and he wouldn't, but call it a telepath's hunch about a telepath . . . I think he'd be glad. He's a bigger romantic than he lets on, and he loves you. He wants you to be happy."
"What about you?"
"He wants us both to be happy. And he's not above a little -- I won't say manipulation, or even matchmaking. But when I talked to him about what I felt, he sure wasn't putting up roadblocks, and we talked -- several times. He said he didn't want us to get hurt, and pressed me a lot about whether I was ready for this, whether I loved you enough to go through your healing with you. He does love you, and looks out for you, and even if I think he was secretly kind of glad, he was still dead-set on making sure I knew what I was getting into -- and I wouldn't hurt you by jerking you around and then dumping you when I realized you had some issues."
I snorted at that. "'Issues' is PC for saying I'm freakin' mental."
"He did not say that. He said you were wounded."
"Mental," I repeated, stubborn. "And what did he warn you about?"
She shrugged, as if unsure whether she should tell me. "Well, he pointed out that you'd need a lot of reassurance, that you'd probably have a hard time believing you were worth being loved, and that you'd have up days and down days. He also said" -- she took a small breath -- "that you'd probably have hangups about sex. And that was a bit of a weird conversation, but only at first." I could imagine, and my face must have been stark. Her voice dropped low. "He said that most survivors wind up having certain things that are triggers for them -- things you might react to badly, or couldn't do."
"The condoms," I said.
"Yesterday, buying condoms. I only ever bought them before for . . ." I trailed off and scratched the back of my head. "It weirded me out."
"That's why you were sitting in the hall?"
"You want me to buy condoms next time?"
"No, no." I scratched the back of my head again. "I'll get used to it. I just -- I won't wait till right before. I had to then, because it wasn't like I'd come prepared for this, but next time . . ."
"Next time you'll be my boy scout."
I snorted. "Yeah, right."
Finally, we began walking again, hands linked. "Was there anything else?" she asked.
"Anything else what?"
"Like that. Like the condoms. Yesterday, I mean. Anything I did . . ."
"No." Well, that wasn't entirely true, but it was difficult to explain and we were silent for the rest of the trip back to the hotel. Just before we entered, I stopped to look down at my feet and, hands shoved in pockets, admitted, "The problem is this -- when it comes to sex, there's almost nothing we could do that wouldn't remind me of something. I've done everything you can think of and then some. It's not the what that's different really, Jean. It's the how, and why. And a lot of it isn't anything I can point to with a simple 'do this and not that,' okay? Sometimes it's just thinking too much and I lose it, but that doesn't make me very attentive to you." I glanced up at her. She was listening intently, not with amusement, so I went on.
"What upset me this morning was waking up and realizing yesterday was your first time . . . and it had been all about me. You did everything I wanted, but I've had sex . . . way too much. I wanted it to be special for you, and it wasn't. I felt selfish."
There. I'd managed to put it into words finally. A minute passed, then I felt her reach out for my hand -- literally pulling it from my pocket to slide her fingers into it. "Yesterday was special, Scott. It was amazing, in fact. I have no regrets."
Surprised, I looked up. "I'm a crappy lover."
"You're an inexperienced lover. So am I. And I told you yesterday, it's not about the orgasm -- which, by the way, I did have a few of, if not necessarily during intercourse -- sometimes it's just about the closeness. To have you trust me, that's what made it amazing. And who the hell cares how many times you've had sex? It was the first time I've been made love to. And it was the first time you've been made love to, as well, wasn't it? And maybe that's a corny distinction, but I'd say it's pretty real."
Her thumb was rubbing the back of my hand, almost compulsively, and I gripped harder to still it. "It's not a corny distinction," I said. "And yeah, I think it's pretty safe to say yesterday was the first time I've ever made love." I lifted my eyes again to find her smiling. I smiled back.
"Wanna do it again?" she asked, smile widening.
"Yeah, I do. But I thought you said I stink?"
She laughed, and the sound was easy, relaxed -- no hint of the furious Jean of half an hour before. "That's what showers are for. I'll wash your hair if you wash mine. It's easier than trying to do it myself with that little hand-held showerhead." Greek showers, we'd discovered, weren't quite the same as American.
So we went inside and took a shower together, then made love in the bathtub -- which isn't half as easy as movies make it out to be with two relatively tall people in a standard tub. We got a lot of water on the floor, and didn't get finished until almost noon. "I wonder where Hank and Warren are," I said while dressing.
"I have no idea. They saw me this morning, so they kinda . . . laid low."
"Your reputation for rages precedes you," I teased. All the men at the mansion had long ago learned that when Jean lost her temper, retreat was usually the better part of valor. "How much do you think they know?"
"Oh, I'd say pretty much everything." I jerked my head up at that. She went on, "They both got an earful this morning. I was way too angry to be coy, so they know what went on yesterday in gist, if not in explicit detail. I'm surprised they weren't hanging around to see if you came back as hamburger meat or in one piece." She walked over to lay her palms on my shoulders and run them down the fabric of my shirt. "You wore it finally."
I glanced down at the blue silk shirt Jean had given me for my birthday two years ago. "Yeah, I wore it finally. It seemed fitting, since the day you bought it was the same day I realized that I was in love with you -- or at least had a crush on you."
Her eyes flashed up from the fabric to my glasses. "Honest?"
"That was a long time ago."
"I told you."
She patted the fabric again. "No wonder you were acting so weird that day. I had no idea, you know."
"I didn't intend you to." I didn't tell her what else had happened that afternoon, in the food court.
"Shall we go find" -- she was interrupted by a hard knock on the door -- "the guys," she finished, walking over to open it. But it wasn't just Warren and Hank on the other side.
The professor motored into the room. "My sincere apologies for interrupting your holiday, children," he said gravely, and if he knew what Jean and I had been doing just twenty minutes prior, he didn't let on. I tried to control my astonished gape at his arrival. "There's an emergency with a young lady in Cairo -- another mutant. I fear that her life may be in danger."
I glanced over at Hank, then at Warren, remembering a similar call over three years ago now, which had brought Warren into our fold. "So we go fetch her?" I asked.
"We go fetch her," the professor agreed. "Pack your things. I'll meet you all in the lobby in ten minutes."
NOTES: Thanks to Arya for pinch-hitting on edits. The subtitle means 'to grow red' and is used of ripening fruit, but it can also mean (in poetry) to become engorged with passion -- a double-entendre. The Greek in this section comes from the Iliad, Sappho, and Archilochos. There are a variety of paths up Olympus, but the two main peaks, Stafani (the Throne) and the higher Mytakis, are on two different routes. One can do a two-day trek to one or the other, or one can spend several days exploring all the peaks. St. George was neither a Brit nor a Greek, but a Syrian; otherwise, the information the icon painter relates is correct. Frommers is for Naomi, and Frozen Flame is at the request of Anya (they're a real Greek rock band) with thanks for tracking down Greek info. On the words to 'Mary Sunshine,' my mother really did sing it the way Scott recites it, and I only learned years later that was wrong. I still persist in singing it 'wrong' to my son, even if I know better, and thus, we see how folk tunes change and evolve. If you'd like to hear the Beth Hart song that Scott sings, it's here: http://www.bethhart.com/leavethelighton.ram The lyrics included in the story are partial.
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Title: Climbing Mount Olympus 2: Ereuthein (Special 16)
Series Name: SPECIAL: The Genesis of Cyclops
Author: Minisinoo [email] [website]
Details: Series | 80k | 12/01/04
Characters: Scott, Jean
Summary: Henry, Warren, Jean and Scott go overseas on an educational tour.
Notes: This entire series is ADULT, and this particular section includes some graphic sexual description (if consensual).
Disclaimer/Other: This is the second of two parts; the story got so long I subdivided it, but both parts DO still constitute a single story.
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