The boy kneeled on the pavement and bent his head to the ground. He looked over at his dark-haired godmother whom he called Rinio in the best way he could get his mouth around the consonants. When he saw her black eyes focused on him, he opened his mouth and licked. Like a cow or a dog. He licked and licked until his tongue was rough and Rinio’s head, backlit by the sun, swooped over like a bird and tried to pull him upright. But he made his legs go loose and plopped down, screaming into the blue air, a little line of black ants passing by his nose, above him the tall cypress with its fatherly gestures. “Mama!”
Was inside with the baby, the one he liked to hurt.
When he washed his hands, he found skin under his fingernails. He’d been itchy for almost a week, right around his stomach, but hadn't told anyone. Leaving the apartment building, he walked out into the cold night.
The chill went through his skull. A block away, his mother and brother were waiting for him in the glass-fronted lobby of the hotel. They sat patiently on a flower-patterned sofa, laughing together about something. Maybe him. He brought in cold air with the revolving door. His mother and his brother stood, and all three of them noticed that the younger brother was now taller.
They followed him into the street, stepping gingerly on slippery ice. He crossed Broadway with the light and the people, leaving the crosswalk to avoid the slush. In his mind he could see their feet in their shoes, his brother's leather hiking boots, his mother's black snow boots, stepping into the spaces made by his own black Vibram-soled shoes.
Jimmy's Restaurant was Greek-owned, Indian-run. The dark-faced waiters ran between tables carrying flaming plates, cheese on fire. They cried "opa, opa!" to move people out of the way. When he was a little boy in Greece, he’d run between the dancers to stir them up, shouting the same word.
His mother and brother followed him to a glass-topped table in the back. A waiter placed a basket of pita bread on the table. His hand went out for it, but he pulled it back. His brother took one piece, and then another. Dipped it in olive oil. Around them the air was warm and filled with familiar scents: oregano and baking fish, cooked cheese. The menu was large, many-paged. He wanted everything.
His stomach itched, the kind of itch that required immediate scratching. It had become embarrassing. They sat on the inside. He faced them, scratching surreptitiously, trying not to damage his wool sweater.
"Honey, what's all the itching?"
He closed his face to them. They ordered things he wanted. He sipped ice water.
On a television screen above them, they strained their necks to watch a video of Greece. They perked up when the bouzouki music came over the speakers. He couldn't hold back a sly smile. Never on Sunday. His brother almost stood up, knocking against the table when their island came on the screen. It's the Venetian fort. No. Yes, it is. His brother was right. And he conceded that win to him. A smattering of home, minor syllables making their way inside him. A tiny rejoicing.
They ate mousaka and horiatiki salad with feta, gemista with rice, and baklava for dessert. His mother offered to share, and he relented. Food loosened his vocal chords but not his heart. He kept it clenched, the opposite of his gigantic little brother who could pour out sympathy like water. It disgusted him. How would his brother ever live in a city like this one?
Once he was home again, in boxers and a t-shirt, he laughed along with the audience to David Letterman, scratching. Glancing away from the screen toward his stomach, he watched the tiny black things crawling. From the table beside his bed, he picked up a blue-and-white flag toothpick from the restaurant, stabbed it gently into his stomach. The bugs were miniscule and wily but the toothpick helped. He had no idea how they’d gotten there.
He refused to take off his Doc Marten and prove to her that she’d run over his foot. And she, without being able to see, could hardly believe her fourteen-year-old son. At the same time, she didn't want to not believe just because she hadn’t seen blood. He kept her on the tenterhook of those fragile smashed bones, a puddle of blood, squishing, he told her, as he walked.
Years later, he would say: Mom, did you really believe me? Don’t you think I would have been howling in pain?
The day Erato, a woman from his past, showed up at the clothing store where he worked, he was happy and a little guilty.
“It’s true,” he said, “I dyed her hair when I was thirteen.”
“What color?” All three of his co-workers wanted to know. Erato was trying on a loose printed summer dress. He could see her long, sandal-clad feet under the changing room door.
“Black. Raven’s black.”
“Would you dye my hair some time?” Hilary, his manager, was asking.
“Are you kidding?”
“Why? You wouldn’t do mine? You would do hers but not mine?”
He tried to explain in the dimly lit store where Erato, his long-lost but never forgotten babysitter, had finally found him.
“Hilary.” He took her toward the new shipment of pastel cashmeres. “I was thirteen years old. We didn’t even have a television. I was bored out of my mind.We went through contortions to explain my black hands to my father.”
A woman walked in pushing an elaborate baby stroller. He continued, “The man kicked stray cats down the length of our hallway. Can you imagine what he would have done to me?”
Erato waited patiently at the cash register. Taking her credit card, he noticed that her hair was no longer raven’s black but a shade lighter, with a lot of silver mixed in. He was not immune to the attractions of silver.
The two of them, boy and girl, lay on his bed eating Pirate's Booty, the cheese kind. First one bag between them; then he went into the kitchen and got a bag for each of them. He’d liked it better when they passed the bag, touching fingers, even though they’d only just met. She was beautiful but it wasn't an excuse for shyness: he could tell she was more scared than he was. They were two teenagers, on their own in New York.
“How much fat?” she asked.
“Hardly any”, he said. The bag made its crumpling sound; two of the thin yellow sticks fell onto the bed, and she read aloud.
“Zero percent. How can they do that? How can there be cheese in these things and no fat? Do you think they're lying?”
He had a good smile, not perfectly clean but definitely intelligent.
“A lie is in the eye of the beholder,” she said.
“Have you told any good lies lately?” he wanted to know.
“Depends what you call a lie.” She looked at him sideways, some of the powdery cheese on her lips, too.
“Escaping from my father was a kind of lie,” she said.
“He thought I’d be there when he got back, and I won’t be.”
“But you didn’t promise him you’d stay.” He thought the logic was obvious.
“No, but it was understood.”
He leaned across her toward the bedside table. “Would you like a Genisoy bar? I’ve got chocolate mint or mocha. Pirate’s Booty isn’t enough protein for us.”
“Mocha’s fine.” She leaned back, noticing the mole on his neck beneath the wave of his hair. It was dark and upraised, a hazard for vigorous brushing.
Both of them wore sandals in the street, flipflops in his case, and their feet were grimy at the edges. It was his bed, his white sheets, and he cared, she knew he cared, but they stayed there, almost in a huddle, almost touching, at the knee.
Eventually they slept, their heads-- his dark one and her straightened-blond one-- just touching at the edges of each pillow. They slept like children, because they were children, though their bodies were beautifully adult.
She kept her hand near her mouth; he pulled his forefinger against his eyelashes. They slept easily because Giuliani had cleaned up New York and besides, there was a doorman several floors below, standing guard.
At midnight she awakened. Sleeping, their bodies had shifted so they touched in three places. She forced him out of an open-mouthed sleep. “Let’s go out.”
They rose from the bed fully dressed. In the street he kept his hand near her, and she wouldn’t let him out of her sight. Walking in flipflops, the soles of their feet, their toes became grittier; the heavy wet air coating their mouths. He worried about getting past the place where the naked man often stood, but he wasn't there.
In Fairway the products dazzled them. First the green-orange-yellow-red of the vegetable section; then the packaged products, crackers, bottles of sauce, bread, and the olives and cheese.
“It smells here,” he said.
“Yes, of food.” She tapped him on the neck where she’d seen the mole. “Don't you like food?”
“Yeah.” He sounded unsure.
“Do you or don't you?”
He looked down at his dirty feet in black flipflops. He had the pair of Prada sandals his mother had bought him but he never wore. In Fairway, right then, the logic he feared was upon him. And it was this blond girl, a kind of twin, who’d got him started. If he wore the Prada sandals, he would wear the Calvin Klein sweater, the one with the tags still on. If he cut the tags off the sweater and wore it outside his apartment, he would eat things other than Pirate’s Booty and Genisoy bars. He had heard of a woman who lived on peanut butter and marshmallow fluff for over two years. He knew someone in his apartment who went to the gym three times a day, except on Thanksgiving and Christmas. He took a deep breath.
There was a security guard at the exit. He had seen the guard every day for the past year and a half, but now he thought the man was frowning at him.
She prattled, taking things off the shelf and putting them in the orange basket he wore over his wrist like a bracelet. He remembered their sooty feet together on the white sheets and thought how much dirtier their feet would be now. The thought of feet attached to limbs pulled his body and mind together.
“Like an old couple, aren’t we?” Her prattle was wise camouflage. She knew everything that was happening, the boy at her side, his fear of the security guard, the way his anxieties could overcome them both like a wave and leave them drowning on Broadway in the middle of the hot night.
Beside the pungent olives, the stinky cheeses, he focused on the green of her eyes. Looking away from them down toward the little green olives, he hoped she heard him as he called them amazing.
Walking through Broadway’s balmy June air, keeping pace with the bodies, she understood that it was time her son grew up. She pictured herself telling him: You’re the age I was when I gave birth to you.
Two nights before, they’d together on the same street, walking with the crowds. Throngs of people had moved up the street past the big stores, flowing out in a neat curve where a naked man was performing some kind of sacrament. People were fastidious in avoiding him. Like everyone else, the two of them speeded up but not without looking his way.
The first glance revealed a slick handling. Looking again, sideways, she saw that the naked man’s hands only mimicked a fondling. His penis was uncircumcized, not quite flacid. She tried not to look but did, not wanting her son to notice her fascination, less for the flesh itself than for its treatment.
That night they’d been returning from a Broadway show. The next day he’d been rude and aggressive, telling her to leave his apartment. Arriving there now, she listened while he sang elaborate ascending scales. She knocked as he hit high F.
When he opened the door, cool air flowed out. He wore a long-sleeved shirt and jeans against the cold air that blew out full-force from the air conditioner. As she took off her shoes and began to speak, he retreated behind the glass-topped desk.
“You’re impossible to be with, so I’m leaving tomorrow. I’m stepping out of your life.” She said it with a lilt, as if it were a melody from the show they’d seen.
The air conditioning filled the room with noise and cold, distorted air. He stayed behind the desk, silent. If she didn’t do something, she would leave New York with this freeze between them. She rarely cried in front of him but couldn’t help it now.
He was startled. "Mom. Don't go." His body lost its wall-like obstinacy: she could see through him. In the room the air conditioning suddenly stopped, leaving them with each other. His hands dragged against the glass top on which he ate his meals alone; then he stepped toward her. Put his arms around her shoulders. Held her.
Sad and joyous, she felt she had conjured his sympathy. They stayed like that a while, half-aware that it had happened almost as in a play. If it had been a play, they would have gone out for a drink next. He was almost of age, and the waiters in New York would have given him a beer. But she really was leaving then, so they kissed one another goodbye.
Everyone had an opinion about those two. Some thought the strife began when the man slaughtered the boy’s pet lamb. The father told that story, how his three-year-old son told people: Lamb dead. Dead. Dead.
At three, he stuttered—everything important came out three times.
Eventually the boy learned that the only way to win was by telling the better story.
“Hey, Dad! Remember when you paid a hundred bucks for those ugly no-name shoes and I left them on the street? And when I got up the guts to tell you what I had done, we went back to where I had left them, but someone had already taken them? Wasn’t that one of the kindest things I’ve ever done?”
He remembered a lifetime of his father’s pretty white teeth crunching on cooked lamb bones. He doesn’t know anyone who’s been a vegetarian as long as he has.
Six months had gone by and they were still arguing over the insect. He insisted it was a cockroach; his father thought it had to have been a grasshopper.
He was the boy whose mishaps shaped him. Every time his parents shouted at him, he felt a little bit more himself.
The cockroach incident had occurred on the second day of his visit to the land of his birth. His father was driving him to the crossroads so he could get a bus out of the village into town. When the cockroach flew through the window and landed on the seat, he’d let loose a high-pitched scream worthy of a diva. His father had driven the car into the back of a parked truck, and they’d been arguing about the insect ever since.
It’s true: I made him take the shoes he didn’t want, paid almost a hundred dollars for them, and less than a block away from the shoe store, he must have quietly dropped them on the sidewalk. I didn’t notice.
He told me twenty minutes or so later but by the time we walked back to the spot, the shoes were gone. He was always trying to teach me a lesson. That’s one way of looking at it. It was only what I, myself, had taught him to do.
Dad, he still says, don’t you think it was a homeless guy who took those shoes? It had to be one of those guys who sleep in the doorways.
Dad, he says, think of his joy! Think of his abundant joy, Dad! How can you resist?
And the thing is, he knows I can’t.
Feeling kind, he asks his brother, “Do you remember how dumb you used to be? You thought you could lend me your passport so we could all go through the same line in Customs.”
“But it was nice of me. I felt sorry for you, having a different passport from the rest of us.”
“Nice, but dumb.”
“So maybe I’m dumb.”
Suddenly interested, he gives the younger boy a hammy look. “Do you want to go in on a present for Mom?”
“What kind of present?”
“Birthday. Christmas. Anything.”
“Just to be nice.”
“Nice? But that’s me, not you. Remember? Nice and dumb. But not this time, asshole. Forget it. You’re not taking another penny of mine.”
“PLEEEEEASE?” He sings it, starting low, ending high.
The younger brother keeps a hand over each ear until vanquished, he reaches in his pocket.
Why had he asked a bulimic to go with him? Ida's breath beside him was savory of atrocities, brutalities.
In Joe's Pub they stood close amidst the crowd: every single seat was taken. He worked his head upward; his nose preferred the smoke and haze of the nightclub to her ghastly breath. It spoke to him of digestion, worms, an apple down to its cells.
He leaned against her and swore to himself that never again would he invite a bulimic to hear a singer. Then the diva came on stage, not huge but large enough to offer a target for their eyes. There was clapping and hooting, nothing like the somber atmosphere at the Met where she usually performed.
She bowed, curtseyed, laughed along with her audience, and began to sing. Just a piano accompanying her huge voice; it filled the place without a mike.
He stood straight, listened with his skin. Every tiny part of his body found its rightful place. Then he knew Ida's desire to lose her body, to be perfect sound bodied forth, a blessing on the hazy air.
During the day but more often at night, he saw people who worked on Broadway. The actors looked exceptionally pale, as if they had scrubbed off more than their makeup.
He was on the lookout for fame, but until the moment arrived when people on the street turned as he passed, the closest he could get was to follow it down the street.
That time the mezzo walked into the store where he sold clothes, he pushed ahead of the other salespeople and claimed her. Close up, her skin was pouched beneath her eyes. From the back of the second balcony, her skin had looked like porcelain.
She asked him to hold her Frappucino. It should have been left outside the store, but he took the large white plastic cup in one hand. With the other, he supplied dresses on their hangers.
He was gathering his courage in order to say, briskly, so it would come out before his nerve failed: I know exactly who you are. You’re so wonderful!
From inside the changing room she told him she'd just had a baby. When she came out in the looser version of that season's black dress, she smiled at him in an offhand way. It was as if she knew his thoughts and was dismissing the very notion of fame.
For years he’d hoped to touch a star or at least brush up against one, but now, close, he kept his hands to himself.
His mother had given him puppets when he was a child, and he’d fashioned a theater from whatever was available. Pulling the soft fabric over each hand, he’d let the animals-- lion, monkey, frog-- sing things to one another about their existence in the forest. His hands made dancers of the soft puppets. Eventually he couldn't remain behind the blanket but pulled it down, filling the stage of his parents’ lives with his dramatic presence. He always longed, though, for a proper stage, a formal audience. He told his father: “You stay there and watch me. Don’t leave your seat.”
The passage of time provided a kind of curtain. Years later they laughed about his willful productions. Just past his twenty-first birthday, he considered his father’s high-flying laughter his great masterstroke.
He and his mother were making the rounds of every Greek coffee shop in Manhattan in search of that special cake.
“You don’t remember those sheets?”
His mother knew he’d slept on them, the ones his Greek godmother, Rinio, had embroidered on long winter afternoons. They were the ones Rinio had ended up using for her marriage bed. They were beautiful needleworked sheets, but there was nothing beautiful about the marriage.
He didn't remember sleeping on the sheets because he was under a year old at the time. There was nothing in his memory of the white-on-white curly flourishes. One of them, she remembered, had once left an imprint on his smooth small cheek.
He’d been a beautiful baby.
What he remembered was the cake. It was honey-colored like the one on the table in front of him, semolina-based, and there was a syrup Rinio had poured over it that made the cake gloppy and solid rather than crumbly. It had been easy for him to pick up the pieces and hand them to the students at school.
He’d been a four-year-old drill sergeant, ordering Rinio to bake a cake so he could sell it outside the schoolyard during recess. His able small hands had pocketed all the coins.
"Does it taste right? Is it what you remember?"
She couldn’t help indulging him: she was alarmed when he told her he dreamed incessantly about his childhood.
"Give me a chance to taste it, Mom."
She looked away while he brought the fork to his lips.
"Ugh. No. This isn't it at all." His eyes shut in disgust. He pushed away the plate, toward her, and she used a spoon to break off a piece. She chewed without tasting. It was exhausting to try to appease him.
She paid with a twenty-dollar bill and they went three blocks to the next possibility. His mind held all of New York City’s diners, cafes, and bakeries. She knew it could take years and years of searching and he would be miserable until he found what he remembered.
Rinio’s cake, she recalled, was made with thick-grade semolina flour, olive oil, sugar, and water. Students had lined up to buy the cake from her son.
He blamed his mother, of course; she had been an adult and could have written down the recipe. She tried to make him understand that a recipe was beside the point. Rinio’s cake was much more than words and measurements.
Seated in another booth, holding yet another menu, she realized that soon she would tell him the truth about Rinio and her lover, Captain Skevo, how they’d used out-of-the-way places—rocky fields, bouncing caiques, bare islands—without any thought of bed linen. Finally, she would have to say, sheets are unnecessary.
One day, she thought, he would have his cake.