I’m sitting in the middle of a forest, in a hotel, and I have become much, much older since I first came here. Not here here, but here as in this country, the city where I was yesterday. I was walking under the Acropolis, past pools of golden light falling between shutters into the cobbled streets, and in the windows Greeks laughed, danced and drank wine, older men held their wives in their arms and the smell of roasted lamb mingled with the salt of the sea. The Parthenon allowed us this, its regal lights illuminating the flat mountaintop like a sculpture in God’s gallery. I transferred some of that power to myself, turned up my collar to combat the Aegean wind coming off the sea, and remembered how it was when I had first arrived in this city, seven years before.
The thing is, when I remember, my memory conspires against me. In reality, these events occurred over the space of a few days, a couple of drunken nights, but my mind has blurred them together into one single evening, which is how I will tell it. If I told it the way it actually happened, I’d have to stretch each day out, break it up with descriptions of sightseeing throughout the city, a rainy Acropolis, hideous scaffolding covering Phidias’ statues, the afternoon Karl and I spent in the hostel eating strawberries and feta, waiting. The whole time I spent waiting—for the fog to lift, the booze to come, Eliftheria’s apartment, the touch of an angel, the scattered thrill of participation in something. I had relegated those in-between moments to the second tier of my memory, the tedious and joyless moments, the tepid grays after arrival and before happening. Only through an archaeological process of uncovering did my mind admit to conflating those three evenings into one—still I do not know, nor do I want to, not now at least, what fossilized memories lie beneath, in that tertiary layer of compressed temporal sediment.
I didn’t return to Athens to re-experience my first memories there; those are always irreproducible. You’re better off trying something entirely new rather than retracing your steps, looking for the same frissons. If you walk down that dirty street, all you’ll find is a glowing melancholy, not unpleasant, but aged and faded, at the corner.
So anyway, last night, as I passed one of those golden windows a fat man twirled his wife and in the lamb fat shining in the corners of his mouth, I was reminded of my arrival seven years before, when I entered my hostel and a Greek girl with thin arms welcomed me with a broad smile and teeth that stuck out slightly but did not make me less attracted to her.
“What’s your name?” I asked.
“Eliftheria,” she said. “It means freedom.”
My loins filled with blood. She handed me the key to my dorm. Casting a side-look at her slender body as the elevator doors dinged, I stepped into the mirrored box and pressed five with a sense of relief. Upstairs Karl was waiting for me. We embraced.
“How was Berlin?” I asked.
He sighed. “It was minus twenty degrees. I was staying with a young Spaniard named Antonio. He caught a cold as soon as he arrived. Our apartment had a draft, so I had to bring him blankets and keep the wood heater full, but he wasn’t getting any better. Yesterday he started coughing up blood. I don’t think he’ll make it to spring.”
I guffawed, thinking that he was joking, but behind his thick glasses, his eyes were somber. Karl rarely exaggerated. We were both often misunderstood; people thought we were joking when we were most serious.
“You must want a drink,” he said.
I nodded. It had been a long day.
Downstairs, Eliftheria saddled a backpack.
“Are you done for the night?” I asked.
“Yes,” she said. “I am going to the riot in Syntagma Square. Do you want to come?”
Karl and I looked at each other.
Down the street we bought a bottle of ouzo and returned to the kitchen, where Eliftheria was sitting with our other hostel-mates. We shared the liquor with them and laughed and talked about the German government. When the ouzo was done, we drank beers and stood to leave.
In the glow of the streetlights, I put my hand on Eliftheria’s lower back. She ignored me. We trailed our friends. I pulled her into the shadows. We kissed briefly.
“Where do you live?” I asked.
“Twenty minutes away,” she said.
“Let’s go there.”
“No.” She pulled me by the hand. “We have to go to the riot.”
Crossed-out swastikas and anti-Merkel graffiti stretched across the gray buildings. At the corner, Karl placed his empty beer bottle in an overflowing trash can. It fell with a clink and rolled in a circle. He bent and set it upright.
“That’s no way to start a riot,” I yelled.
I picked it up and threw it across the street. It shattered, scaring a couple walking arm in arm. Karl laughed out of shock; Eliftheria’s eyebrows formed a ‘v’. I wondered if I had blown it with her for the night. I told myself I didn’t care.
We pressed on to Syntagma, where police in riot gear and long plastic shields faced a crowd. The demonstrators held signs, roiling. One brave man ran into the neutral space between the two groups, shouting and pointing, only to run back into his swarm. A tomato arched in a parabola, exploded noiselessly against the cops’ protection. We joined the crowd.
I called, “Are you going to let the Germans push you around? And your government is in bed with them!” Furrowed brows opened. I grabbed a mostly-empty bottle out of a small man’s hands and threw it high. Glass shattered. The cops charged and our bodies swelled in a tide. Nightsticks rose and fell, moving closer to me. Liquid splashed onto my head. An elbow bounced into my temple. I pushed back against the wave, seeking an exit. Through a tangle of arms, I spotted the back of Karl’s head moving away from me. I swam through torsos to reach him. He turned to me and his eyebrows bounced. I followed him as he jogged up the street and into an alley. Hands on my thighs, I panted, laughing. My legs shook.
“Come on,” said Karl, “let’s get a drink.”
Last night, in the twelve-bed dorm, I placed my bag near a lower bunk. Clothing lay over bedspreads, towels dried on dressers. It was Saturday night. I took the elevator downstairs to the kitchen, where the smell of onions emanated. A bottle of ouzo stood on the table like a prize. I left the hostel and walked around the corner and down the block to a souvlaki place. I had to wake up early so that I could catch an early morning bus to Glyki.
The bus dropped me off this morning in front of a grocery store, a souvlaki joint, and behind a row of green-roofed houses, the Acheron gurgling through the ravine. I had come here for it, Ancient Greece’s boundary between life and death.
I braced my legs for the steep incline to the river’s banks. A cloud of dust rose behind me as I ran to the water’s edge, my feet sank in the gravelly bank. The green waters warbled between canyon walls and all was quiet except for an occasional birdcall. A breeze blew from the north. Late winter sun emptied into a cloud. I zipped my jacket, not knowing what else I had expected, yet vaguely satisfied. Though a couple of hours of sunlight remained until dusk, the entire scene was shadowed, offering a somewhat spectral aspect. I searched for any opening in the limestone cliffs, gently rebuked myself for believing in an entrance to the Underworld, argued that a natural opening might have inspired the myth. It was enough to come here and see this mysterious river for what it was: a natural border. I took the scene in once more and, convinced that I was satisfied, walked up the hill.
And just an hour ago, in the town’s only hotel, I lay on my bed and began to write. Darkness fell, and I recalled how just a few hours before I had experienced something new for the first time. But was it enough? Had that quiet, Arcadian scene justified the six hour bus ride? Those banks, where I had waited, when a wasp buzzed in my ear and I waved away a half-dozen more as I retreated along the shore. Around the river bend, a group of people pushed and shoved. They were nearly naked, and some of them splashed into the cold water. Then came the rhythmic plashing of oars. A longboat was crossing the shallows and its hull scraped the gravel riverbed. The rower was tall and sickly-looking, his limbs gangly yet sinewy, strong. His face was sallow, his gapped teeth showed as he heckled the herd. He had deep-set eyes the color of the sky, the light blue gaze of a serial killer. His nostrils flared, exposing cavernous black holes in his broad, white face, as he called out in Greek. The wind moved his sparse white hair and thick eyebrows. The bodies came closer to him, approaching at the water’s edge like a pack of dogs waiting for their master at feeding time. They floated between each other, weaving and ducking, hollering, shouts echoing along the river. They leapt through the shallows into the ferry, lips pursed, eyes big, they panted.
Then came a couple of men, one wearing a white toga, the other a red robe. They looked like cousins, with similar hooked noses and wide brows. They both wore crowns of laurels. The togaed man turned to his companion, pointing across the river and watched as those ghostlike people filled the boat. Then the man in white conferred with the ferryman, stepping through the shallows into the barque, his protege behind. They sat toward the bow. I called, “Can I come too?”
They looked up at me. The man in white asked me something in what I thought was Latin. I cursed myself. I hesitated, and summoned the little Italian I knew. “Posso venire?”
The man with the red headdress looked sharply at me and reached out his hand, but already it was fading into the rocky cliff, he and his guide, leaning to whisper in his ear were disappearing, pixellated, as the ferryman maneuvered his craft in the slowly-flowing river. I could have swum up beside them and climbed in, but I was afraid of the cold; I didn’t have time. Something held me back; I would have wound up submerged, neck tilted, forever stuck in an attempt to breathe over the wavelets.
That was what I had seen and now I have told it. I placed my laptop on the bedspread and crossed my room to open the window. The acrid wind passed over the river’s limestone cliffs, rustling the leaves of the trees. I shut the window.