Thursday, November 30, 2006

While The Gods Dream, Apollo Waits For Morning

I think I am dreaming.

I think I fell asleep at my desk while studying for the last final before Christmas break and I am now dreaming that my flight is touching down in Athens, Greece. I don’t like to fly, and my ex-girlfriend Becca is with me at the terminal.

Which is why I think I am dreaming.

The first thing we smelled when we got off the plane in Athens was cigarette smoke. I was expecting something different. Though I was new to foreign travel, I’d heard stories about how other countries had interesting smells as compared to the States—like the seemingly ubiquitous smell of dogshit in South Korea—so I was waiting to be greeted by a completely unexpected aroma, waiting for a surprise like some out-of-place waft of hummus drifting by the plane as we would step outside.

A throng of people swarm around the baggage carousel while Becca stands off to the side, waiting someone in front of her to make room, and after a while her mother gently tells her that she would need to squeeze in there herself if she wanted her bag soon; anyone who looks Greek doesn’t seem to have any patience for waiting in line. Becca looks over at me and sees me watching her, and she smiles. She gets her camera out of her purse and takes a photo of me as I stand next to her grandfather.

In the photo album, the old man will be blinking while tucking in his polo shirt and the tall Native American kid doesn’t smile.

Ω

The dream continues.

I dream we’re at the Parthenon, the throne to which Athens bows her head, regal Acropolis that keeps watch over the Aegean Sea. The Parthenon is a corpse of a building who’s left her skeleton strewn out in the open air to be kicked at by the masses of tourists who shuffle by. I saw the recreated Parthenon in Nashville, a fantasy of what once had been.

I wish there were less people, Becca says.

We’re kind of part of the problem, I reply.

We’re not in a guided tour, though.

I suppose that did make us special.

Scaffolding lines the remaining upright structure as part of a restoration project underway to help sort out some of the damage from a 17th century battle, in which an Ottoman stockpile of gunpowder in the Parthenon was detonated when struck by a Venetian mortar.

Can you imagine? Becca says. Just look at it. It must have been the most incredible thing in its day.

I had heard the biggest threat to the Parthenon was acid rain from the pollution of Athens below. I try to imagine its columns melting to the ground in a few decades.

No, I say. I think it’s tragic.

Oh, come on, Becca says. Just use your imagination. She points to the structure like she were a tour guide. Imagine it’s the greatest building the world has seen. Imagine it’s the center of the cultural universe, and everyone is in awe of the society that can create such things.

It’s falling apart, I say.

You’re such a grouch. Becca crosses her arms.

I turn to look back towards the city, a thick haze of smog covering the claustrophobic city sprawl beneath the Acropolis—or maybe that’s dream smog—and I bet Becca probably thought I was like that Indian they used to put in the ads who would cry at the people who littered and trashed up nature, though I’d never touched a ceremonial feather in my life.

No. She probably doesn’t really think that. She knows me too well.

I see her camera flash out of the corner of my eye.

Did you just take another picture of me? I ask.

Yes, she says, gravely, checking the LCD display of the photo on the back of the camera.

Give me that, I say. Her brown hair shines under the sun, like something out of a television advertisement, long and luscious, twisting in the light breeze over the Acropolis, and I snap her photo as she looks towards the Parthenon while two young boys wrestle on a rock behind her as their parents disinterestedly looked on.

In the photo album, the girl will stare off in the distance while a tow-headed boy behind her tries to remove an extraneous arm from the inside of his shirt. The girl’s large sunglasses cover too much of her face and it is hard to read her expression. She is young and slim and pretty.

She gives me a gentle punch in the shoulder, making the dream feel real.

Ω

The reverie carries us to the site of the ancient Olympics.

On a bus.

It is an overnight ride, because the drive from Athens to Olympia in Elis takes five hours. The plastic seats are the same as the ones I used to ride on during bus rides in grade school. I am a child again. Except now my legs are longer and I have to put my knees up against the back of the seat in front of me to fit, making my hamstrings tingle as they fall asleep.

Becca’s mother and grandfather sit in front of us, and I am next to Becca. Under the dim glow of a portable reading light she is paging through Ovid’s Metamorphoses. I don’t have the heart to tell her that Ovid was a Roman. I hoped she would notice that all of the gods’ names were different, but then again, I suppose that if this is my dream, then I get to make all of the rules.

Becca has given me her diary to read. The current page:

“I don't want people to feel sorry for me, I don't want people to feel awkward and not know what to say, I mean even after losing Dad I'm still at a loss of what to say to someone who has lost a loved one, crazy huh. I dread the ‘parents’ question above all others—I HATE leaving Dad out but I dread the looks on people's faces when I tell them that he died. Because I hate the image that gives them of him, because he was so alive, so handsome and the image you get when someone tells you of the dead is not vibrant or happy...it's sad and dark. And Dad wasn't either of those things. Anyways…”

A bump makes me look up from the red leather-bound journal. Through the windows, the black silhouettes of Greece stream by, and I swear I am seeing shadows of columns and statues and temples—maybe they are just phantasms—flicker past Becca’s head, which rests against the window. Her eyes droop to a close.

I like watching her sleep, but I get jealous. I do not sleep well.

I close the diary. Becca’s father died two years ago while running a charity five-kilometer race. He was an avid runner. He collapsed in the middle stretch, about kilometer three, out in front of the old county courthouse. His heart simply stopped beating. The paramedics managed to restart it, but his brain had gone over ten minutes without oxygen.

They took him off of life support a few days later.

Somewhere in ancient Greek legend, a man named Pheidippides lies dying in an Athenian’s arms, having run twenty-six miles to tell his countrymen that the Greeks defeated the Persians at the fields outside Marathon.

Ω

Are you Indian? the woman in the visor asks me.

Honey! Her husband interrupts. He may be Pakistani. Them two don’t like to be mixed up.

I tell them that I am Cherokee.

Cherokee? The husband runs his fingers over his bald head. You’re a long way from home.

We are standing before the Ancient Olympic Stadium and I do not remember how I got here. My head is killing me. Small groups of tourists stand on the grassy embankments around the track, which looks like an elongated dirt soccer field bookended by two stone lines—the start line and the finish line—and the space between, a sprinter’s graveyard, a tomb of thousands of footraces buried in the memory of the ancient dust. I turn around. I do not see Becca or her mother or her grandfather.

The two Americans stand next to me and talk to me about home in Virginia. I ignore them. They are ignorant. I try to dream them away, but their cheap smiles stay with me, and the dirt track, in its huge historical significance, seems like a bit of a letdown when compared to the spectacle of the modern Games.

I went to public school outside of Atlanta. It wasn’t very big. There was one other Native American kid in my grade, Tommy, a Navajo whose father owned a fairly successful computer tech-support business. “Race me,” he said, standing next to me out on the playground, stretching up tall, “race me and we’ll see who’s the real injun.” I didn’t say anything, and then he shoved me, and I said I was more man than he’d ever be, and then we went out to the soccer field to race. The sky was blue, just like this one, the wind was blowing the same way as it is gusting over this track, and when Tommy said ‘ready set go’ he tore off, galloping hard, a foreshadowing of his days as a starting tailback on the varsity squad, and by the time he quit running he was fifty yards away and I hadn’t moved a muscle.

Michael!

Becca stands by the stone judges’ stand at the midfield as her grandfather scuttles along behind her. I don’t know why I didn’t see them until now. The Americans wander away from me, and I realize I hadn’t heard a word they had said. Someone’s hand comes down on my shoulder. I turn around and see Becca’s mother smiling at me, the Great Negotiator while Becca and I were breaking up, a stoic woman of thirty-eight or thirty-nine. I wonder if she still aches over the loss of Mark like her daughter does, the daughter who belongs in an Attic tragedy, whose diary entries grow longer and longer as if the pain were reborn and unspoken right up until the words spilled out of her pen each night, like she were Sisyphus pushing the stone up the mountain for all eternity.

But surely it can’t last for an eternity. Dreams can last forever—spinning and repeating in their own little universes—but memories do not.

Becca’s camera flashes from across the way. In the photo album, two flecks will stand near the barren Grecian track, hovering above the gray mass of Grandpa Kelly’s shoulder wandering in front of the lens.

Ω

When you dream of Athens, you don’t typically dream of the Plaka; you’ll dream of columns and statues and Socrates in his underwear before the tourist trap of the Plaka neighborhood conjures itself in your head.

The Acropolis holds its chin up over the Kydatheneon and Adrianou causeways, the two main arteries that bleed tourists into various shops, jewelry stores, cafes and restaurants lining the streets of the Plaka. Two Japanese men slowly stroll in front of me as I walk next to Becca’s grandpa, whose stooped head never once turns left or right to inspect the stores that we pass.

You know, he says, I never liked you much.

The Japanese men stop walking, and I have to sidestep around them to avoid a collision. Turning to see if Grandpa Kelly was still with me, I see Becca’s mother at my side. I turn around. Grandpa Kelly walks arm-in-arm with Becca thirty paces back. I wonder if I just imagined him beside me, if I was going crazy; but then I remember that this is probably a dream, so such transgressions can be allowed.

This is a dream, I say. Right?

What? Becca’s mother asks.

Nothing, I say.

It wasn’t long after Becca’s father died that Becca and I became steady. I suppose I could be thought of as the ‘rebound’—the ‘next guy,’ in a way—but I wasn’t that good with girls and Becca was a catch. She was a catch to me, at least; I thought that the crying was normal.

Becca’s mother stops at a rack of postcards at the corner of Voulis and Apollonos. After Mark’s death, she wasn’t as emotional as Becca was—not nearly as manic—but she didn’t speak at all. I had been dating Becca for two months before she said anything more than “hello” to me.

She flips through the rows of postcards, and shakes her head. There is a lot of Becca in her face, especially in the eyes.

None of these are in English, she says as she holds up a glossy reproduction of the Aegean.

Can I ask you a question? I say.

Shoot, kid. Becca’s mother looks at me, with the Becca eyes, with the same sympathetic tone she had when she was telling me that Becca wanted to break it off.

Do you miss Mark? I ask.

It seems like a simple question—while dark—but it really runs much deeper, because those four words were a cover-up for the million-dollar ones, “is it normal that your daughter writes about her dead father every night?” I didn’t want to be the dumb Indian ex-boyfriend who thinks he’s a part of a family and suggests Becca needs counseling again—but maybe what was left was not much of a family at all, so maybe I had more of a say than I thought.

Grandpa Kelly putters by. A local on a Vespa nearly clips him while steering through the Plaka shoppers.

Becca’s mother keeps flipping through postcards, as though she didn’t hear me. I don’t repeat the question.

Thanks so much for bringing me with you on this trip, I say.

You’re welcome, darling.

She finds one she likes and tries to beckon the vendor, who ignores her as he chases a small dog down the street.

You know, she says, I would take all that stuff about Becca wanting to ‘play the field’ at face value.

I’m surprised that she brings this up with me here, but I’m also glad.

Maybe she’s just afraid of commitment, I say.

A couple comes up to the postcard stand, speaking German. I was fortunate to even be invited to go to Greece with the Tracy family, and I wonder whether I had Becca or her mother more to thank for that.

But suddenly I feel lightheaded, and I put my hand on the postcard rack to try to steady myself, spilling a few of the cards onto the ground. When the fog clears out of my eyes, I stand face to face with Becca. Her mother is nowhere to be seen.

What is your new girlfriend like? Becca asks.

For the first time I contemplate waking up if I am able.

I said, what is your girlfriend like? she repeats. I wonder if I had been even really talking to her mother.

She’s very nice, I say. Very shy. She likes to cook.

Wake up.

Is she pretty? Becca asks.

Wake up.

Yes, I say.

Ω

I have problems with insomnia. Maybe I am not really dreaming. I don’t think it matters.

Becca’s fingers are on my back.

I’m a little bit drunk.

We made friends with a couple young Athenian cosmopolites while we were out and they bought us ouzo. Too much ouzo. The Athenian from the Plaka, Nikos, waves to me from the bar and asks me if I want another. I can’t hear him over the Greek hip-hop, thump-thump, but I know the word in his lips is ouzo.

The new girlfriend isn’t really anything special. I don’t mean that in a bad way. Jeannie just kind of is, always consistent, always the same. She’s also Navajo. I really want to believe that that’s a coincidence, that I like her for her character, but to everyone else—especially Becca’s grandpa—that will be a hard sell. I will remind them that I am Cherokee, not Navajo.

Becca’s fingers are on my back, and I am not brushing them away. Couples bounce off of us, an elbow here, a hip there, and then before I really think about it, the question comes out, the one that had been on my mind all night:

Are you coming to Emory next year?

I have to yell it, but Becca hears me. She mouths we’ll see, mouths it like she means it, but the instant her lips start to move I know it’s a lie, that she’s going to school somewhere far away. And then I think she’s a silly little senior in high school who’s never been without either me or her father in her life, the girl who won’t be able to pick a major, who won’t have anyone to read her diary when she has a bad day—

Ouzo.

Lots more ouzo.

After all, who needs to dream when you can drink yourself into levitation, make the bodies on the dance floor hover off the ground and tangle in celebration of the god Dionysius, where any one of them could spill their wine to the ground in libation and make the honorable dead walk the Earth; we could dream and pay tribute and drink until Becca’s father was alive again, make it like he were walking among us—but, as with drinking too much, a dream like that would be torture when you woke.

Becca presses her face up against mine.

I think I still love her, and that too will hurt when I wake.

Her camera flashes. I feel faint.

The photograph will not go in the “Greece Trip” album; it ends up in a desk drawer, buried beneath personal letters and other photographs of forgotten friends. The boy and the girl’s faces will dominate the frame, their skin overexposed from the close-range flash, their heads juxtaposed over the hazy black background. In some years, one of my daughters will find the print buried in a memory box next to a pair of stuffed animals, call my name from across the house, and the moment I walk in the room they will put the photograph in my fingers and ask me who the girl is.

Ω

Relax, Becca says.

I am relaxed, I say.

You seem nervous, she says. And you look exhausted.

The plane sits on the runway, our red-eye flight put in delay due to thunderstorms and forty mile-per-hour winds. I seem nervous because I am nervous; I hate flying and I hate having to wait in the plane. Becca writes in her journal, and I know she’ll have me read it when she’s done. I wonder why she doesn’t just talk to me about it. In my head, I formulate the likely entry:

“Greece was amazing, truly a great experience… one of the best times of my life, easily… but I can’t help but think about how it would have been with Dad at our side, joking about the locals, the crazy shops—I just wish he could have seen this. I can only imagine what his stories would have been like later, telling them to the cousins, and maybe someday to my kids…

“And I want Michael to be happy, really happy, and I want things to be like they used to be. I want us to be close again. And I want to be with him at Emory”—

I take a deep breath; it’s nice to fantasize.

Becca, I say, as a flight attendant moves by with the trolley. Are you coming to Emory next year?

She stops writing and closes the cover of her journal.

I’m going to Georgetown.

If I’m dreaming, this could mean that it’s not true; but my stomach sinks, as I just don’t want to face the likelihood that I am awake.

I won’t get to see you much, I say.

I know, she says. If this were a nightmare, the plane would crash as soon as we took off.

I reach over to her lap, to her diary, but she stops my hand.

What do you want? she asks. She adjusts her reading glasses and brushes back her hair.

Your camera, I say. I want to see your pictures.

She hands it to me. I have not slept since we touched down in Athens; the colors on the camera’s back display run together, and I try to blink the blurriness out of my eyes. I flip forward through the images anyway. I know they’re there.

Are you sick? Becca asks.

No, I say, I’m fine.

Grandpa Kelly says he never saw you sleep when you were rooming together. She touches my elbow. The dizziness returns. And he doesn’t sleep very much in the first place.

As if he’s a reliable source of information.

Michael! Don’t be rude!

What? I say, putting down the camera. Did I just say that?

Becca looks at me, like I’m crazy, like the way grandma looked at me when I told her I wasn’t going to take the scholarships from the Cherokee Nation because I didn’t need them—I wasn’t oppressed—and the old woman swore at the ceiling and at my mother and yelled “why doesn’t the boy take the money?”

You should see a doctor when you get back, Becca says, stopping short of ‘so you don’t end up like my father.’

Maybe it’s for the best.

My cell phone vibrates in my pocket, and I check the caller ID. Jeannie. I had promised I would call her while I was in Greece. I didn’t.

The phone keeps vibrating. I don’t pick up.

Becca’s mother looks over her shoulder at me from three rows up across the aisle. I catch her eye, and she doesn’t say anything; and then, like a prairie dog, Grandpa Kelly peeks his head up over the seat next to her, and they both stare at me, silent, motionless, like statues.

Becca pulls Ovid’s Metamorphoses out of her carry-on bag as she puts her journal away. I wonder what it was like for the Romans, pretending they were the Greeks—the Trojans, rather, according to Virgil—stealing the Greek gods for their own, stealing their architecture, their art—

They are still staring at me.

I turn to say something to Becca, but her eyes are closed, she is already falling asleep, the Metamorphoses spread across her baby blue ‘I ♥ Ελλάς’ souvenir t-shirt. It’s not fair. She’s the one that should have restless nights, not me. I have nothing to worry about, other than watching her as she rests, hearing her inhale and exhale, seeing her turn on a side.

Her body slackens as she drifts towards sleep. She’s so still.

Michael? She breathes.

Yeah?

Why don’t you kiss me anymore?

Her speech slurs, her mind somewhere in that space between living and dreaming.

Because, I say, we’re not together anymore.

She murmurs, and then she is gone.

I imagine that I tell her I love her, and I imagine that she doesn’t reply. I pick up the camera and try to take her picture, but the battery is dead. Doesn’t matter. Doesn’t matter that she goes to Georgetown, either, because she will always be running away every single night—like she does tonight, abandoning just another dumb Indian on some runway, leaving him to close his eyes and try to dream of falling asleep as he listens to the sound of the wind and the rain against the windows of the last flight out of Athens.

3 comments:

Jenn said...

The part about her dad's heart and the 5K shook me up. Tip-toeing the fiction/fictional non-fiction line?

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