Written by Christos Ikonomou
Translated from the Greek by Karen Emmerich
Three weeks earlier I’d been chucked off the job and now the raindrops were crashing onto the windshield like skydivers betrayed by their parachutes.
It was Friday evening, there was a protest at the university, and the road was blocked off. Stuck at the traffic light by the Attica department store, I looked out at the people on the sidewalk and in the other cars and wondered how another week had passed and how the next one would, too, and if on Monday, say, I’d manage to be a man, an antras, and tell Antriana the truth—and what kind of name is that for a woman, anyhow?—to be an antras and tell Antriana the truth, to stop hiding, to sit her down across from me, look her in the eye and say here’s how things stand.
Because it’s been nearly three weeks since I was fired and I still haven’t told her a thing; I leave the house every morning as usual, only I don’t go to my job since I no longer have a job, I just get in the Micra and roam the city for hours, one end of Athens to another, and even beyond—Lavrio, Perama, Rafina—and of course I know this can’t go on much longer. What kind of antras hides from his wife, lies to her, refuses to face reality head-on, to say so it goes, water under the bridge, moving on—and besides, I’m not doing myself any favors, I’ve already spent a fortune on gas.
I looked at the crowds around me and the red tail lights flickering on and off up ahead and listened to the whistles of the traffic cops and the shouted chants from the protest in the distance. Real men, proper antres, don’t just sit there chewing the cud, don’t get stuck in the past. Real men have long legs and a short memory; they forget and they run, they forget and run straight ahead. Real antres keep moving forward, they don’t drive around in circles. Proper antres are practical, with square minds and triangular hearts. Real antres think practically, act practically, feel practical pain. Proper antres are practical practitioners of practicality.
Then, watching the raindrops crashing onto the windshield like skydivers, etc., I wondered if maybe I should sign up for a creative writing seminar or something, so I could sit down and write something to Antriana. Instead of telling her face-to-face, I could write it, in a letter or piece of flash fiction—what a ridiculous phrase—a tiny bonsai of a story, though the way my mouth and mind run it would probably come out a baobab or sequoia.
Then I wondered if maybe I should sign up for one of those group therapy sessions for the unemployed. I saw myself sitting in a room surrounded by strangers—“Good evening, I’m so-and-so, I’m unemployed, and I’m pretty sure I’m going nuts.” Then I pictured the clinical psychologist who’d be running the group. She’s around forty and has, as usual, an unusual name—Adamia or Zambia, stress on the i, or Rigo, stress on the o. She’s got her hair tucked behind her ears and is wearing tortoiseshell glasses, a knee-length skirt, skin-colored tights, and black ballerina flats. She nods along as I talk, encourages me to keep going, and whenever she starts talking, stray words in English slip out now and then—empathy, compassion, that sort of thing. I picture her standing in front of a TV camera and declaring: “I love people and want to make a difference, that’s why I became a psychologist.”
Then the blockhead interviewing her asks three times in a row how she spells her name, and of course when the footage airs it’ll still be spelled wrong: Edemea, Zambea, Rego.
Then I picture myself on some island. My name is something heavy and islandy like Sifis Alogaris or Manousos Avgerinos or Yiakoumis Nichteris, but my wife is still Antriana—and really, is that a name for a woman? I’m still driving around in the Micra, but now it’s to places called Sirmata or Apato or Kleidonia or Tichari. It’s still Friday evening and there’s a vicious wind blowing, a murderous wind, a delivorias, a crazy north wind, as the locals say, and I’m driving in circles from one end of the island to another and wondering how the week already passed and how the next one will, too, if I’ll find the courage on Monday, say, to be an antras and tell Antriana the truth, and so on and so forth.
Then I tell myself we’re no longer living only in the culture of self-reliance but also in the culture of then, of afterwards, of meta, as we say in Greek, so I should probably change the terms of the narration accordingly. “Metagood metaevening, I’m metaSifis metAlogaris. I’m meta-unemployed and I’m pretty sure I’m going metanuts.” And the clinical psychologist Adamia or Zambia or Rigo follows my lead: “I metalove metapeople and metawant to metamake a metadifference…”
Then I think how at some point we need to sit down and have a serious conversation about what to do when the meta comes before a word that starts with a vowel. What are we going to say? Meta-unemployment or metunemployment? Meta-occupation or metoccupation? Meta-affection or metaffection? Meta-adoration or metadoration? Foreigners don’t have this kind of problem, they just stick a “post” on everything and call it a day. Then I wonder if maybe we could import that into Greek: for postunemployment, posttruth, or postlove, we’d have postanergia, postalitheia, postagapi. Then I make up a few tasteless and politically incorrect puns: poustagapi, poustalitheia, poustanergia: faglove, fagtruth, fageunmployment. We could probably keep it going in English, too: haglove, hagtruth, hagunemployment. The culture of post, of what-next, of then.
And then, sitting there stuck at the light outside the Attica department store, I hear the rear right door of the car open and see a woman climb in, carrying a red duffle bag. She sits down, sets the bag beside her, and gently shuts the door.
—Good evening. To Piraeus, please. To the port.
A few moments pass with Sifis/Manousos/Yiakoumis swiveled around facing the back seat, not knowing what to say, because the car is blue, not yellow, and he isn’t a cab driver but merely a metunemployed, post-unemployed, meta-laid-off metantras, and if push came to shove even a child could tell you that there’s no such thing as a Micra taxi.
Then he turns back around and shuts his eyes for a moment, and when he opens them, he straightens the mirror and puts the car in first, second, neutral and lets it roll gently over the wet pavement, over that small swatch of pavement between it and the car ahead.
—To the port?
—Yes, to the port, the woman says. Thanks so much.
The raindrops are crashing onto the windshield like skydivers betrayed by their parachutes—I turn left on Omirou to avoid the bottleneck and then turn again on Stadiou. I keep glancing at the mirror, trying to catch her eye, trying to figure out if she’s cracked or plastered or both. But the woman seems neither crazy nor drunk. The only incongruous thing about her is a red mark like a burn on her neck. When I get caught at the light at Kolokotroni, I consider turning around and telling it to her straight—“This isn’t a cab, ma’am. Look, there’s no meter or anything.” But then the light turns green and I keep going, and she’s quiet back there, she doesn’t have any tics, she’s not talking to herself, doesn’t smell bad, she’s a woman like any other. Just sitting there looking out the window at the people shaking themselves like wet dogs now that the rain has stopped—one hand on her duffle bag, the other on her knees.
—You’re going on a trip? I ask her.
—Yes, a trip.
—Where to, if you don’t mind?
—Crete, Hania. It’s a trek by boat but I’m afraid of planes.
—Is that where you’re from?
—Yes, from Hania. And you? Where are you from?
Hm, good question. I miss a beat.
—Not too far from there, I say. Ierapetra.
—Oh, amazing! How did you end up in Athens?
I glance at the mirror, start to say something, change my mind.
—Forget it, I say. It’s a long story.
For a while we don’t talk. My nerves are stretched taut, ready for anything. I keep thinking she’ll lunge forward and grab me by the neck or plunge a razor blade into my back or ask me if I want to drive her to some hotel—“Twenty an hour for a strapping man like you, whatever you’re in the mood for.”
—Ierapetra. The southernmost city in Europe, right?
—It depends, I say. It depends on what you mean by Europe.
I look in the mirror.
—So, you’re headed on winter holiday?
—A winter wedding. I’m getting married on Sunday.
She smiles. She’s around the same age as the clinical psychologist, but she doesn’t wear glasses and her hair is pulled back into a ponytail. When I wish her a happy wedding day—what else am I supposed to say?—she lowers her head and thanks me, gently brushing an invisible layer of dust off her knees with her hand.
—Is it love? I ask, trying to meet her eye again in the mirror.
—Of course, she answers. Love. But it’s also our names. His name is Avgerinos and mine is Poulia.
I glance back up at the mirror and then, thirty meters down the road, I pull into the shoulder and stop. I turn around and look her straight in the eye.
—Poulia, I say.
She smiles, nodding her head.
—Poulia and Avgerinos, I say.
She smiles, nodding again.
—Unbelievable! I say. Poulia and Avgerinos. Unbelievable!
I don’t take my eyes off hers. I’m waiting for her to break, to start laughing, to tell me she’s joking. A man named Avgerinos fell for a woman named Poulia and they’re getting married this Sunday. Sure, great, what else’ve you got? The maid of honor is Little Red Riding Hood and Tom Thumb is best man? And the wolf and seven little goats are the ring bearers? Poulia and Avgerinos. No way, not a chance. That kind of thing just doesn’t happen.
—It’s true, she says. Of course, it’s a little strange. But we’ll see.
—How did it happen? I ask. How did you meet?
She suddenly turns serious. She glances out the window, strokes the red mark on her neck. Then she turns back around and meets my eye. She finds her smile again.
—Forget it, she says. It’s a long story.
When I got home, Antriana was putting away the Christmas decorations. I helped her pack them into their boxes and then we carried them down to our storage space. In the elevator I started to tell her the story, changing things or leaving them out as needed. I changed the ending, too, I don’t know why. I told her that when we got to the port, the woman realized what had happened and started to cry. She was shaking all over, couldn’t catch her breath, and I didn’t know what to do, I was afraid she might faint. When she calmed down, she pulled out her wallet to try to pay me, but of course I didn’t take the money, I just left her on the jetty and drove off. In the mirror as I pulled away, I saw her spinning and looking around in a daze, like a compass needle in a world with no north.
Later, in bed, Antriana climbed on top of me and let her hair fall into my eyes. I had drunk a whole bottle of tsipouro, and I shattered her.
—You should keep that bit about the compass, she said. I mean, keep it all. Don’t change a thing.
—I don’t know, I said. I’m not even sure about your name. The terrified husband who has to man up, to be an antras and tell the truth to his Antriana… I don’t know, it seems too easy. In general I’m wary of using names as symbolism. It’s the kind of thing they talk about in creative writing seminars and then everyone goes off and writes about Zoes and Joys and Odysseuses and Penelopes.
I lifted her hair, holding it in both hands, like—
—Stop! she told me. No similes. Just let it flow, like the Micra over the wet pavement.
—But you used a simile just now.
—That’s different. I’m not the one writing the story.
—What are we going to do? If the three weeks turn into three months and the three months into three years, what are we going to do? How are we going to get by?
—We’ll manage. Don’t worry, I’m here. Something will happen, you’ll see.
We looked at one another and started laughing.
She went to the bathroom to wash up, then brought us hot cocoa with cinnamon and a plate of grape molasses cookies. We sit there cuddled together, looking at the narrow slice of sky showing through the glass of the balcony door, she licks up whatever crumbs fall onto my chest. I tell her that one of my new year’s resolutions is to start shaving my chest—I hate seeing all those white hairs. Forget it, she says, because if I start shaving my chest, she’ll stop shaving her armpits and legs.
—I changed my mind, I say. Poulia, Avgerinos, it’s too sweet. I’ll change it.
—You won’t change a thing.
—And the ending?
—Poulia went off to find her Avgerinos. The end.
—I’m afraid, though. I’m afraid I should really put me on the boat with her. I shouldn’t just leave her there at the port. What if she doesn’t board? What’ll happen if she doesn’t get on the boat?
She huddles even closer in my arms, grabs my hand, and squeezes it against her stomach.
—You have to let us leave, she says.
—I can’t, I’m afraid. I really, really need to finally hear a story that doesn’t end in injustice.
—Any story worth its salt is like a manual for assembling a broken world. That’s the justice you’re looking for.
She raises her head, our eyes meet in the dark.
—You have to let us leave.
—I don’t want to. I’m telling you, I’m afraid.
—But you have to. Let us go, please. Just like that, calmy. Close your eyes and let us leave. You have to. Honey, let us leave.
Day was breaking, but the moon still shone in the sky—a dreadful consolation.