But the idea of transformation has always been something that I romanticize in a work. I’m cautious of it but I also need it to connect my thoughts with the process of making. That’s really important.
Early in the morning, in this part of the world, in the summer, the sun is so strong and direct, I believe that all the spirits must be holding that fiery globe in its heavenly place and shining it down on us. This early in the morning, and before the first news of murder or robbery, of war or famine, the sunlight casts miracles across the dark, blue water and life itself seems to emanate from its movement. I’m not a religious man, but at this time of day, when it is not yet hot, the sky is so brilliant as if to mean that something, some great secret of the world, might be revealed. Later, it is too hot even to appear on one’s porch.
The summer’s heat may have been just what her doctor ordered. Though her doctor may not actually have said anything of the sort, maybe heat, perhaps warmth, and when he said it there may have been a paternal look in his penetrating eyes. She had printed “analyst” in block letters on the first page of a book meant for thoughts and dreams.
I saw the word the first time we met. That is, technically speaking, the first time we met she showed it to me. A friend had given it to her before she sailed away from home, before she flew away then sailed overnight from Athens to Crete. It was, she told me, the kind of gift and gesture the two friends appreciated, an old- fashioned gesture which might have no relationship to their lives. It represented instead a poignant moment others might have shared. It was a kind of wistful parody. She did say parody, I think.
The hotel where I have rooms is weatherbeaten but the place is clean. The small white-washed building is stark. There’s generally a bright sky overhead and it is hard to feel dark or gloomy, except during the winter months, though generally this island life is not the right background for depression; the sky here is not for secret thoughts or mean-spirited reflection. Yet murders are committed, vile acts reported. I find this unnerving though I’ve lived here now for quite some time, and, in spite of the fact that, or perhaps this is why, I write crime stories. My fascination with the gory details of life that hurtle toward us unblinkered and appalling is unabated even here. Right now I am winding up a mystery based on a real life crime that was never solved. In my book I solve it, of course. Though some things are left open to question.
People here are open. Nectaria, the concierge, told the American girl almost immediately that there was a house left by an English painter, left standing, barely standing, in terrible shape, nearly uninhabitable and with no hot water, but she could rent it for very little money. The young woman took out her travelers checks and paid six months’ rent. Nectaria pushed her hand, to indicate she needn’t give so much in advance, but the younger woman persisted and Nectaria took the checks somewhat reluctantly and placed them in a drawer in the reception desk.
I could have had the house years ago but I had not wanted it, preferring the ministrations of Nectaria, the concierge and her husband, Christos who manages the restaurant down the street. The American intended to stay. She would teach English, she told me. She would live abstemiously, I thought, like a nun or a recluse. If she had the talent for it, she might draw fast uninteresting portraits of tourists for money, though the cliché might depress her, were she to turn out to be a sensitive soul. The concierge called her Helen which wasn’t her name but was close enough to it, and that’s how she became known on the island.
I met Helen then, some days before she moved into Peter Bliss’s broken-down house overlooking the harbor. It had three floors—a rickety structure—but was still a charming antiquity, with romantic dilapidated walls and ruined floors. Across the lane lived Chrissoula who was caretaking Bliss’s place in his habitual absence. Nectaria handed over Helen’s travelers checks to her, I believe. She and I alone took immediately to Helen, and in fact Chrissoula loved her from the moment they met. It was an unconditional love of a kind I’d not seen before, I think, and I use unconditional advisedly as Helen was an unusual girl, one an elderly Greek woman might well be suspicious of. She wasn’t, unlike some of the others of my acquaintance. In any case Helen settled in happily to Bliss’s house which had a terrace that looked out to the harbor and the sea. It was usual to find Helen there.
To myself I called her Smith or Smitty, because of an expression that came over her face as we talked, as if she were placing a hard metal object into a blazing fire and bending it to her will. I thought she was a tough modern type but then I am one of those old, older men who finds young women incomprehensible. I’ve never slept with one, young or old, but Smitty, if I were younger, I might have wanted to. Perhaps she is androgynous enough for me or a little dangerous. I usually find women soft or vulnerable, and that frightens me. I have a horror of hurting people. It’s pathological, I suppose. But I am never afraid to stick the knife in when I’m writing.
It wasn’t that Helen let me drop in whenever I wanted. She kept to herself even when she was with me, held herself in check, which is strange, I think, for a girl or young woman who’s only 20. She liked to go for car rides, and some trace of girlishness brightened her face when she entered my little VW. I like to drive around the island, it’s my escape from the book I’m meant to be writing.
My real work is based on my family; my great-great-grandfather was a man of some importance. The family are figures in a novel I have been struggling with for years now. When Helen entered my life I was stuck at the Civil War or rather that period just before it. My maternal line was feminist and abolitionist, and my paternal line was neither. Certainly not feminist and some held slaves, probably using Mr. Jefferson as justification, though that’s nowhere in any letters or diaries that I’ve discovered. Helen doesn’t yet know about the mysteries I toss off, as if I were wanking, not writing. I must admit I enjoy doing them very much. The purely literary venture is speculative and nonremunerative, but as I tell my young friend, if nothing else, it fills the time. I know she finds this notion abhorrent or worse. Young people don’t fill time.
I can see Helen from my small terrace. She is on her larger terrace wearing a romantic broad-brimmed straw hat, tilted back on her head. She is reading. She is consuming all the books in Bliss’s library. He has everything Mathew Arnold and Firbank ever wrote and I’m sure these are curious to Helen, though she’s diligently plowing through each. It’s reassuring since one hears so much about how young people don’t read. When I awaken in the morning she’s always already there on her terrace. She’s adopted a kitten which the Cretans might have killed since they have scant affection for pets. I awaken much later than my young friend and my mornings are groggy. I drink too much, particularly in the summer months, but I never drink before five, and then, if I do, I always dilute my wine with water. Some in my line were alcoholic but none died in the gutter. Some even died in bed. I imagine I’ll go quietly. That is how I envision it, content, happy to go, and surrounded by angels that I’ve hallucinated, Caravaggesque ones that dance around me, supple fleshy bodies cavorting as the light grows dimmer and dimmer. Wait, don’t go, I’ll cry. I think about death rather a lot since having turned sixty.
Helen does too. She is eccentric in her young way. I suppose she’s been suicidal as she alludes to dark incidents that would make me shudder were she to reveal them. I try to put myself in her frame of mind but I cannot picture the murky deposits of memory to which she refers. I cannot fit my frame to her frame. To reduce or enlarge it. She is slender and terribly sweet looking. It seems to me she should be happy as she is lovely and bright and, most important, has many years in front of her. She says this is why she is unhappy. What is she going to do? she asks. Life is overwhelmingly empty. Sometimes I think we are isomorphs.
Young women oughtn’t be so unhappy. I’ve read Madame Bovary but Helen’s unhappiness is not of that sort. Or maybe it is, in a revamped version. An Anna Karenina in love with one of those long-haired rock musicians. Tragic love or bourgeois life pressing down on the girl. One day, I tell her, you will fall in love and marry, bear a child or find some good work to do. Helen laughs at me and tells me I am way off base; that her distress—angst, I say—is different. It quite escapes me. Much escapes me and I escape some of it. Living here, time just passes and people come and go, and it’s possible to fool oneself about what one is missing or misunderstanding.
When I first arrived, I kept to myself, the way Helen does now. I was suspicious of others like me. That is, those more like me than the natives. I avoided their company and posed as a self-sufficient literateur who had come for reasons different from anyone else’s. This went on for months. Months and months. Gradually I got drawn in, perhaps first by Alice Morgan, Alice of the beautiful voice. Yes, I think so. It was Alice’s inviting me to tea at her plain but sumptuous apartment, where she almost undressed me, figuratively speaking, of course. And once my clothes were off I found I couldn’t quite force them back on again. And then she had me to dinner with Roger and some of the others. Alice was the queen of the scene then, the Queen Bee. She’d been an opera singer and had abandoned her career for reasons that were never spelled out, and that may have involved a man or men, or neither, or may have been because her voice was giving out. Alice never said. There are photographs of her in costume around her apartment, and occasionally I’ve commented on the beauty of her appearance, but that was years ago, and here she still is, still the Queen Bee. Twenty years later the scene has become a bit frayed at the edges. Thinner, balder, less bright, more brittle. Like me.
Stephen was at that first dinner, and Roger, and Duncan, I think. Stephen fascinated me, as does Helen now. He and I necked one night; it was pleasant but not passionate and so we immediately became friends, never lovers. It is awful what happened to him. I hope Helen isn’t anything like him. He’s a cranky hermit and never bathes, that kind of thing, and yet he was such a beautiful young man. His breath smelled like spring onions—is that what Auden wrote? I can’t remember. Helen probably isn’t anything like him, though at first sight of her, he, Stephen—my Stephen Daedalus—came to mind. Helen might be Molly. She says yes from her bed, but of course leaves it too, which poor Molly never did. This is an argument I’ve had with Roger, about Molly’s ecstasy on the bed, from a small bedroom. He says my point of view is jaundiced by the ghosts of my feminist ancestors. I do practice, as Alice has succinctly put it, a form of ancestor worship.
Helen doesn’t live abstemiously or like a nun, I’ve discovered. I take care of a young Greek boy—he is my companion and lover whom I help and will send to college if he is bright enough. He has a terrible temper and we fight when I’ve drunk too much. When he was with Roger, before me, another American, he was considerably calmer, I’m led to believe by Roger, who’s from the South. Roger is a braggart with the temper of a disturbed snake. My temper is not the best either. My charge Yannis and I forgive each other, though. I never talk about him to Helen but he is with me at meals at the restaurant Christos manages. I don’t actually need to talk about him. I have dinner at the same restaurant every night. I adore lamb and their salads are always fresh. When I go to the movies, I take Yannis if he wants. Helen and Yannis appear to tolerate each other. She knows a little Greek and they transact whatever is necessary in a simple tongue. The movies have English subtitles, are never dubbed, and apart from the noise of the worry beads that are swung wildly during action movies, it is perfectly easy for any English-speaking foreigner to follow them. We go often, Helen and I, at 6:00 PM generally.
It was Yannis who told me that Helen sleeps with sailors from the naval base. So it wasn’t precisely my discovery; it was Yannis’s and he is much more in the position to find out such material. When he told me he clasped his hands together and rubbed his palms in a lewd gesture. He is a simple boy, after all, and simple peasant boys, even those who sleep with rich foreigners—foreigners here are thought to be rich and are, relatively so—these boys are terribly self-righteous and bigoted. My first thought was, When does she do it, because she seems always to be at home. Of course they may visit her in that decrepit house and leave stealthily in the middle of the morning, when the sun is just nudging up over the harbor. Nectaria as well as Chrissoula must know what is going on, but neither has let on to me. Nectaria is terribly open-minded for one raised in such a seemingly rigid society. But then we are foreigners and their rules don’t apply to us. No one can be as good as they are. I think I am disappointed in Helen, my vision of Helen, though I hesitate to admit this even to myself and never would to the others.
I rub my hands, the way Yannis did, but without the lewdness. Lately there’s been a numbness in my hands and feet. Luckily I’m not a painter like Bliss, wherever he is, with wife number whatever she is, because my hands, when numb, are useless and couldn’t hold a brush or even a rag, they tingle annoyingly. Were my eyes to become numb so that they froze in their sockets I’d be morbidly worried. I wouldn’t be able to read. And life would be over for me. I vigorously shake my legs and arms just thinking such a thought. Yannis must think me mad. I leap up and down, stamping my feet and jerking my hands in their sockets. Then I pull my short white terry round me and recline in my chair. The blood must have shot to the colder points of my body. I’m not in good health, and in the States I’d get better medical attention or be compelled to by high-minded friends. Still I’m quite happy to be outside of Massachusetts and out of the reach of my brother and his Puritan wife who would probably love to place me in a hospital. Perhaps my eyes are already numb. They are large and protruding, colored a limpid blue that, with much wine, turns a fuzzy pink and powder blue, like the flag for the gay republic in the States. If I stare into the mirror for any length of time and fix my eyes on myself, I realize again what I did when I was only seven. I am quite repulsive, like a frog.
Helen doesn’t seem to care or notice how strange looking I am. My head, for instance, is too big for my body. I always had the largest hat size in any class at school, and when measured, the hat-maker would invariably remark on it. I was called alternately Big Head or Egg Head and fortunately my other extremities were of normal size so I didn’t suffer much from that, when I was young. Here the boys don’t seem so fixed on size as we are in the States. From what I can tell, before puberty they all play with each other’s genitals and at puberty some boys are the girls, and some the boys. There is now a young pretty blond who is much fussed over by the others, even courted by them. When they walk along the harbor, he is positioned in the center. The other boys keep their arms around him, or the favorite might be held by one more possessively, to claim his rights in the moment. It swiftly changes. But the blond boy always remains the girl. And if his future is like the others I’ve seen, he will probably end up being a homosexual, despised by his present mates and sexual partners, and sent to Athens where he will find others of his kind.
Helen is friendly with these boys and may not be aware of their arrangements. Their contact is limited by language although one of them has told me that he will take her English class as soon as he finishes high school. He says his mother might pay for it. Helen goes with them to the beach. She does not like going there alone. It is a novelty for Cretan men to see young women on their own and lying half naked on the beach and to them it is always an invitation. Sometimes they just stand and look at her, from a distance. Sometimes they take out their penises to show her. She is frightened by this.
I haven’t the heart to tell her that I probably would be delighted if they did that with me. It would not frighten me. But then I am different from Helen. In many important ways. She may be as promiscuous as I, or more, but that would be in her own feminine manner. This manner seems not to include cooking. We had one lamentable meal on her terrace which, thank God, she had the good grace not to apologize for. I don’t believe people should apologize for what they can’t help. Nor has Helen any artistic ability. She can’t render life just as it is or even close to what it is. I am not sure what she is good at, though I am sure she is good at something. I have always been good with words, and wrote terribly smart compositions about military heroes when I was a lad, pleasing my mother but not impressing my father who would have, in true American fashion, preferred brawn to brain, especially in a boy-child that age. My brother, older by four years, was his favorite. Instinctively I knew fairly early that I would never please my father and gave up before beginning, really. I knew he wouldn’t love me and I clung to my mother beyond reason—though I don’t know why I put it quite like that—and she appreciated me, even when I came to despise her a little. As I grew older and I outgrew her, I was less in need of her protection, such as it was.
I don’t know how Helen feels about her paterfamilias or materfamilias, if there is such a word. Helen tells me there is no word for man-hating, no equivalent to misogyny. This bothers her but she is careful not to seem as if it really matters to her. I appreciate her sangfroid, because I would hate to have to minister to her. She never makes this necessary, however, although from what I hear from Yannis, much occurs in her life, as if she were a contemporary Colette. Now I wonder what that woman was really like. Though I’d rather know Genet.
Just now I see Helen on her terrace. It’s about 5:00. The fishermen are doing what they do with the boats and talking among themselves. Their faces are brown and their skin, even from this distance, seems thick, like hide. I would like to pinch one of their cheeks, to see if he felt it. These men seem to me impervious. My glass of wine is cold and dry, much needed after a frustrating afternoon of work. I cannot imagine the mind of a woman of that time, or perhaps a woman of any time. Like Helen. But trying to gainsay a 19th-century feminist abolitionist temperance reformer and work her into a modern novel—it’s great Aunt Harriet who drives me to drink.
That misery Roger has taken a table near me, not with me—we are cautious about possible presumptions. Yannis hardly glances at him, the other American with whom he once lived. Roger sucks on his cigarette, looks toward Helen’s house and through his small teeth hisses some distasteful remark about her. I pronounce him a Nelly and he waves me away with his hand, as if he could. He is not alone in his contempt. Of the expatriates I am the only one who spends time with her. She doesn’t seem to mind and has indicated that she finds the others very uncool, which is how she put it. When someone speaks like that, uses words such as cool and so forth, I think of the ’40s and clubs in New York and Boston where I heard jazz played by excellent Negro musicians who seemed unaware of their white audience. Black musicians. I was delighted by the phrase—and still am—Black is Beautiful.
Roger shifts in his chair and pretends to write in his journal. We are, unfortunately, almost all of us here, writers. This is a curse at times though relatively amusing at others, especially after I’ve had a few glasses of wine. Roger had a minor success with his first novel, set in the South, a coming of age drama that elided his homosexuality, masking it through other characters that the cognoscenti recognized. Then he got a good advance for his next, which is what he’s working on, and left the States. Years ago. Even in this place he lives somewhat in the closet. I don’t know why he is here. The Greeks don’t care, not about us. I’ve even seen him flirting with Helen as if he might actually want her.
It was late one night in Christos’s restaurant and one of the waiters took out his guitar and was playing bazouki music. There were very few people around. The music had that insistent buzzing sound, a kind of anxious tone. Roger bowed to Helen and fairly lifted her out of her chair and waltzed her around the room, looking ardently into her eyes as he moved her this way and that. It was quite a performance. That was in the first month she was here.
I don’t know if Helen was taken in. He can be charming and has the foulest mouth. Again Roger says something about our Miss Helen and the sailors. Roger gets so Tennessee Williams, more Tenn than Tenn. He’s only from North Carolina but taunts me with his Southern accent. And his blue eyes, clearer and much more beautiful than my own, which pale by comparison. So bright shines our Roger. Oh shut up, I hiss back. Tsk, tsk, Roger responds. I close my eyes, like a turtle in the sun, and turn away to show my displeasure. But just then Alice Morgan walks up to us. Her presence has an immediate salutary effect. Alice is an enigma but around her we keep our gloves on, so to speak.
She has had affairs with important literary men, who have deigned to write about her, one salaciously in fact, and though nearly 50, I’d guess, Alice moves like a much younger person and is quite sensual. Her operatic past surrounds her, in a sense, and she’s dramatic without being oppressive. A tall woman, she can appear rather fragile which is generally contradicted by her tough-minded, though gently spoken discourse. She nearly escapes categories, which I generally try to place people in. Alice makes elliptical conversation and like Roger is witty but not quite as vulgar. She suspects Helen whom she’s had for tea and has offered piano lessons, should Helen want them.
I’d like to find out why she’s so suspicious of Helen but not in front of Roger. And yet why she offers her music lessons and what happened at that first tea.
The Maori love, Roger is saying, just as we do. The Aborigines love as we do. Love, Roger is saying, is universal, whatever form it may take. Alice interjects, liltingly, Yes, dear, but who are we and what do we love? Roger’s cunning eyes take her in, as if delighted, then he grasps one of her pearlescent hands in his and kisses it. Why, we love each other, he says. I love you, dear. Alice takes out a cigarette, a Greek one with a movie star on the box top, and taps the filtered end softly and ever so slowly she whispers, Roger, I haven’t a clue what love is. Do you want to teach me? Alice calls his bluff all the time but in such a graceful way, Roger has not yet defiled her with his sharp tongue.
Today I am annoyed by this and bored. Sometimes I don’t mind repetitions, but I always prefer originality. Alice Morgan’s full mouth asserts its intelligence by curving into a calculated grin that sets Roger back a drink or two. I look toward Helen’s terrace and this time her head bobs up and she waves her tan arms above her head energetically, as if calling to me. There’s your Psyche, Alice says. Perhaps you’d better go minister to the dear girl. All alone. Roger howls. Alice blows out a puff of smoke. You two, I say waspishly, are despicable. I am shaky on my feet. The water slaps against the harbor and the blue sky is under my feet as well as above my head. My legs have gone numb again. Yannis helps me walk away from the table. I believe I’m leaning on him, like some Southern belle, coquettishly. Or perhaps I’m just an old drunk, a silly little queer. I don’t care. Sometimes I hate everyone but Helen and Yannis. Yannis is quite solicitous this evening. I wonder what he wants. Or how much. I rest my head on his broad shoulder—he is short but muscular—and thank God for my family’s ingenuity that provided what I have, such as it is. I can keep him and myself. Alice and Roger are laughing in the background. I simply don’t care.
Lynne Tillman’s most recent novel, Motion Sickness will be out in paperback from Serpent’s Tail in the Fall. This April, a collection of her short fiction, The Madame Realism Complex, will appear from Semiotexte Native Agents Series. This chapter is the first from a novel in progress, Cast in Doubt, which will be published by Poseidon Press.
But the idea of transformation has always been something that I romanticize in a work. I’m cautious of it but I also need it to connect my thoughts with the process of making. That’s really important.