The Errand

By Catherine Curan

Many Mountains Moving, Vol. IX, No. 1, 2008-09


        At the doctor’s office the woman who speaks English like she is clipping the wings from a bird says: “If you are going to live this kind of lifestyle, you must be aware of the consequences.” Then she sends the girl back to the waiting room to rejoin the man who came with her but whom she does not know well.

        He has been her lover for about a month, which means little more than that she has seen his face overflowing with desire in the moment before he switches out the lamp with his thumb. The face he wears now looks as if it has only recently been taken out of a drawer and aired. A beard he did not have last night fans out along his cheeks, lightly, as if testing whether to take hold.

        Having come here to this country to get away from home, she has moved among groups of English speakers like an ant in an ant farm, compressed between two sheets of glass. From inside her circuit she can see the faces of the natives around her, witness their strange gestures. But it is like looking out the window of a limousine; it is something you do when you feel inclined.

        Now her lover says, “What did she tell you? Is everything OK?” and she realizes she has been standing with her hand pressed lightly against the hair on his cheek.

She tries a smile, feels it settle between her stark cheekbones. “Yes, everything—everything should be fine.” She does not tell him about the lecture, not yet, though it still smarts. She had wanted to say something to the woman about having difficulties with consequences even when you try to anticipate them, but the thoughts did not coalesce in time. Nor do they frame themselves into words she can say to him now.

Passing through another door, she removes several of the large multicolored bills that do not quite fit in her American wallet and hands them to the receptionist, who writes a receipt. “Thank you,” she says in a voice that feels thin and pale and blonde. It lacks the essences of other languages, the strength gained from conjugating difficult verbs, from building entire sentences in an unfamiliar tongue. She tries again in Greek, “Thank you very much,” but the woman only nods at her from behind the desk, and it is time to be gone.   

        Outside in the street they hold hands while waiting for the trolley, she and her lover who spent nine years learning English, in the British style favored here. His vocabulary and pronunciation reflect this; she hears a faint echo of England in the way he says “only,” in the way he says her name, Kristine. To her it has always sounded flat, like a tabletop covered with glass. But he kneads the name, adding a cadence to it, adding also the flavor of foreign endearments. These, at least, are words she has learned.

        The trolley rolls up like a great slug, doors snapping open, and she rushes to enter. Angry passengers glare at her, eager to disembark. “Wait till they’re out,” laughs her lover, in a way that is not unkind. Schoolchildren and teenagers stream down, dressed in denim and surly faces. A widow in black takes each of the three steps as if walking for the first time.

Kristine crowds with him at the back, looking out the window at the cars cutting each other off in the trolley’s wake. She notices a rope leading up to the top of the trolley, the wires like dead branches above, wonders what the words for these things are in his language. If she were to ask him he would tell her, tearing a page from the notebook he always carries, and write them down. In exchange she teaches him American idioms that he will probably never have a chance to use.

         The trolley clicks, chunk-chunk, and lurches forward, covering the last four meters before stopping short at a light. People murmur, stagger, and apologize. The crush of bodies calls up a long-forgotten memory of a subway ride during a trip to New York City with her family when she was still a child. Goaded by her younger brother, Kristine woke early one morning to sneak out of their hotel room to the forbidden subway, its entrance right there on the corner all the time. They rode an express train for two stops, hurtling up the West Side of Manhattan with a crowd of commuters, people of every description, pressed close. Kristine wanted to stay on, but her brother got scared, and they ran up to the street, took a taxi back. Her parents never found out, and Kristine and her brother never spoke of it afterwards.  But what astonished her, what she remembered, was that the trains were coursing under the street always, whether or not you dared to ride.

Thinking of home, she holds her lover tightly around the waist.

 

         Since they had already taken the day off, and have finished their errand early, they decide over coffee that it would be a good idea to go on holiday instead of returning home. He is joking, drawing silly cartoons in his yellow notebook, spilling the sugar out from the packet onto her saucer, and, with one finger, making designs. “If it had to happen, we at least picked a good time,” he says. 

She stares at him, thinking, Yes, but how could you know? when she herself had not been paying enough attention to her body’s rhythms.

“Since today’s Friday, I mean,” he says, and she finds herself smiling.

He stops tracing the sugar. Finishing his coffee, he wipes his mouth with a paper napkin. Taking a trip would be ridiculous; they have packed nothing. They scrambled into a taxi this morning wearing worried expressions and yesterday’s clothes. They are not prepared. He’s thinking of it, too, she can tell from the appearance of wrinkles at the edges of his eyes; they always presage a smile. But he says, “You look so pretty right now.”

         Her smile expands to laughter. “Thanks. You look a bit like a mugger, yourself—I mean, with that beard.”

           

         They splurge; they were already in debt from the doctor, why not spend a few thousand more? Bumping over what had seemed a smooth sea when they took their seats on the hydrofoil, Kristine tries to control her unruly stomach by thinking of calming things. Searching her mind for images, she finds only cacophony: the children in her first grade class cavorting while she teaches them a new song. On this hydrofoil many children surround her, small ones not yet in school. When she leans back against the headrest a tiny fist closes around some of her pale hair, which is now in a ponytail, gathered for the taking. When she turns the child looks neither guilty nor gleeful, only beautiful in a long-lashed, sleepy-faced way. His mother smiles when Kristine says in their tongue, “My hair,” and the child’s fist and face disappear.

         Other children play with a toy they have brought, a tape recorder, and she wonders aloud to her lover whether today they are truly in hell. “I don’t know,” he says, seeming to treat her rhetorical remark as if it merited his consideration. “I suppose it could be worse. They could have a microphone.”

         While he is laughing, rubbing her hands, it appears he is wrong. The children actually do have a microphone, and no adult is sitting by to restrain them; they are four alone in a row. The boy and girl on either end fight for control. While they do so the baby who had pulled Kristine’s hair blows energetically into the microphone. Kristine thinks of discipline words she knows, of graffiti scrawled by frustrated, politically-minded youths, red letters insisting Enough.

         Her lover tears off the edge of a tissue and rolls it between two fingers. She realizes she has leaned across him in an effort to silence the children somehow, with a gesture or a glance. Startled, as if she had seen not the children but her own reflection, she sits back. He has been fashioning earplugs, and hands them to her. Accepting them makes her feel like a foreign guest who cannot appreciate the concert her hosts have arranged for her. Surely other passengers are annoyed by the noise, but as Kristine looks around her it is clear none have reacted as strongly as she. “It’s just that I work with children all day,” she says, speaking too loudly because of the tissues blocking her ears.

            He looks at her, his face awash in sunlight. The hydrofoil continues to bump over the sea. Somehow he holds her gaze steadily, his eyes like obsidian, glowing warmly. Leaning in to kiss her neck, he straightens so quickly she half-disbelieves the touch. Then he says, “I know. That kind of thing can get to you, when you deal with it all day long.”

            Closing her eyes against the glare, against the ruckus within and the grey strip of sea melded with sky outside, she leans against him, trying not to think.

           

            His dream is to earn a living as a music teacher on some unspoiled island, he can never decide which one. He speaks of this while loosening his tie after a day at the family’s insurance firm, has spoken of this over the cups of coffee he and she consumed while first exploring each other’s ideas, sitting close together in a cafe. More recently—as things have progressed—the scene is her apartment near the school. He has arrived late, as he often does, bogged down by a promise to his father to look after one last thing before leaving for the day. His hair stands on end from where she has been running her fingers through it, happy that he and she are alone, and at these times he looks very beautiful. It suits him, this discussion of his hopes. “You’ll make your money first, and take care of things, and then you’ll be free to do as you please,” she says, or if not these words exactly, something similarly upbeat.

In the open air of a cafe, beneath green leaves, such sentiments fell like seeds, ready to take root. But she is learning that even while he speaks of dreams he lives almost always surrounded by his family, caught in a strict set of traditions and ideas.

        This is not apparent when he picks her up on his motorcycle, bareheaded but offering a helmet to her, or when they are lying in bed together watching The Simpsons on a Sunday afternoon. But even at these times he is always also a part of the family, the firm dating back for generations: Constandinidis and Sons.

         Five sisters stretch out in a line ahead of him, one disappointment after another. He is highly valued, the only boy. As if aware of their lesser worth, the sisters are flighty and spoiled, married to lazy good-for-nothings or unable to graduate from foreign schools. One is divorced. 

         After dinner in his tiny apartment, Kristine has felt their presence, thick as the scent of spring flowers, brilliant as lemon trees.

         And she, having called herself a painter while doing other things, has come here to this place and created a life in which she has even less time. When the children hug her, pressing gap-toothed faces upwards for a kiss, she forgives their endless demands on her time, she wants to be with them always. But these are fleeting kisses, fleeting feelings, vivid as sudden rain. On the other side of the balance stands a tower of days, of weeks, stands the greater sum of her eight months here spent gluing pictures on cardboard, lettering signs, learning songs, inking smiley faces on stickers, memorizing the endless linked syllables that make up the children’s names.

She teaches older children, too, sixth graders who require more than games and songs, who send her home with stacks of notebooks to correct. Like sets of encyclopedias, the notebooks contain never-before-seen wonders: errors of the strangest, most creative kind, drawings and declarations of love. She has exchanged her paintbrush for a red pen, delving into her unconscious for a fresh eye with which to view the landscape of pages, the endless blue lines.

         All this is not so very bad. At school she is a popular import, American and new. And here in this city as everywhere her parents have some friends, some friends of friends, and have put her in touch with alumni from her father’s alma mater. From the start she’s been taken care of, instructed by elderly expatriates and businessmen of mixed descent. They know the best places for American goods, where to go for cultural events (such as the one where she met her friend), how much to tip, when to get upset about Greek inefficiency and when to endure. Their guidance has been invaluable, shaping her experience completely, and at times Kristine forgets she found the job on her own.

         In spite of them all she has this friend, this friendly acquaintance, so lately crossed over to lover, her first in this foreign place. He speaks good English, has a good job, has a goal. “What?” Her mother had flung the word, as if speaking forcefully enough could close the space between them, cover the constant murmur of foreign conversations intersecting Kristine’s line. “Did you say he speaks very good English? I should certainly hope so.”

           She wakes feeling someone looking at her, but it is only him, with a box of crackers and a bottle of water to share. He says something but she thinks she is still dreaming; she cannot understand. He opens the water, offering it to her, and she accepts gratefully, for her mouth has gone dry. While she drinks he watches, smiling, and, after a moment, removes earplugs in pantomime.

           

        At the port he has no trouble finding them a room. She knows how difficult this can be, having attempted it last August on her own when she first arrived in Greece. He bargains gracefully, securing them the best view, the largest room. It’s warm enough that they can leave their jackets before descending to the street again in search of a beach.

The morning has scarcely finished unfolding though the day seems to her already interminably long. Suddenly she is afraid, looking at him in his wrinkled clothes walking next to her, squinting into the sun. She does not want to reach the water or wherever it is they will stop. Ducking into a store with a hand-lettered sign that reads Turist Shopp she says, “Come on, I’m going to buy you some sunglasses. You can’t take a vacation without sunglasses, come on. 

         He follows her and they are both suddenly as silly as schoolchildren recently released. The shopkeeper surveys them from beneath black brows.  Her lover explains that they have come to buy sunglasses, having heard that the ones this store carries are top quality. She laughs along with the joke, experienced by now at taking cues from other people’s smiles even when she cannot understand their words. The shopkeeper’s black brows swoop downward, dragging the flesh around his mouth down as well. He says something staccato, unsmiling. Her lover laughs, daring the other man not to laugh along with him, with his foreign girlfriend, these two who spill over with giddiness and spare afternoons to spend in the sun.

Unable to pretend she is only silent, not sidelined, Kristine asks what is going on. Her lover makes a sad face, as if hating to break up the game, then laughs. “It seems this store has never sold sunglasses. Not once in twenty years.”

"Never? " she asks in Greek.  One-word sentences are her specialty. 

"Potay," he agrees. 

Doubled over with laughter, they leave.

         They find another tourist shop, then a supermarket, and many sunglasses. He spends half an hour in different places, trying different styles and finding flaws.  They wander further to yet another shop, where Kristine begins to think they are seeing the same glasses, that after a time appear different, by different light, under a different yet equally watchful shopkeeper’s eye. At last, wearing a pair she had liked but he had initially rejected, he says, “ I'll take these, then.  Let’s go.”

         After the sunglasses they are not satisfied but they do not require anything else. Walking back along the port street, passing tavernas and cafes, he whistles a tune she does not know. At a yellow kiosk festooned with newspapers and cheap souvenirs he stops to look at himself in a mirror atop a rack of hats. Then he plucks one from the bunch, “Lovely, isn’t it?” and she nods. He buys a baseball cap and wears it backwards to entertain her, pushing the glasses low on his nose. His hair sticks up in a tuft and this reminds Kristine of her younger brother, whom she has not seen since she left America. Strange that her lover, too, is a younger brother, with five sisters ahead of him instead of only one. Walking lightly as if the port, the coffee shops, the red and white chairs had all been set up as a fairground, he shows no strain. He is used to carrying his burden, piggyback, their eyes stacked up above his like carvings on a totem pole. It takes too much energy, much too much, and more than Kristine has, to unravel why this must be so.

         He points out the poppies sprinkled on the hill.

“They’re amazing,” she says. “They’re unlike anything I’ve seen before. Early summer here must be wonderful.”

         Still wearing the cap, he shakes his head. “They won’t last. By July the land dries up and the flowers are gone.”

         Her feet burn on the cobblestone road or perhaps she only imagines the ability of heat, this early in the season, to shimmer through the soles of her thin shoes. They walk a long way past the stalks of spring flowers to a place where rocks form a slight ledge, just big enough for sunbathing. Eagerly, at the first opportunity, he clambers down. She can tell he wants to wet his feet in the water, but he turns to help her first.

They sit, a hand span separating them. Leaning back on her elbows, she feels grit press into her palms. Fish the size of a child’s finger mar the clear surface, twisting and leaping like a shower of pebbles. Peeling off his shoes and socks, he watches the water. The hair on his legs curls above his ankles, fades and shows again on the tops of his toes. She thinks of the taste of his skin, of how ticklish he is.

        But he is not looking at her. Grabbing the rusty ladder with both hands, he lowers himself to the water. Stopping herself just barely, she avoids telling him not to fall in.

        He is looking out at a small fishing boat, waving his legs back and forth through the clear water, when he says, “What would you have done?”

        She tries to find a way to misinterpret the sentence. While she struggles, not answering, the fisherman starts his engine. The ugly sound spreads towards them but he is still like some image from a postcard of this pretty place. Then the boat jerks, moves forward and begins carving a wound in the water. They both watch him go.

Finally the words fall out of her, the words she has been hoarding all day. “I couldn’t have had it. There’s no way. I just couldn’t have.”

         “That’s what I thought,” he says, not looking at her, not looking at the water, but down at his own hands.

          “There’s no way I could have had it.” This is said defensively, in a voice that sounds, for once, hard.

           “I’m not judging you,” he says. “I understand.”

           Though she has spoken only a few brief statements, Kristine senses they can neither be retracted nor explained. Feeling like a witness who has given a false account of a crime, she wants to offer an elaboration, to make him experience with her what he can never understand. Beyond the horror of having to tell her parents, the whole of it looms up in front of her like a sudden storm destroying the cloudless day, like an inexhaustible rain. 

But she cannot articulate this feeling to him. Words for such a sentiment, if they exist, lie in her most subtle vocabulary, not in language they can share. She searches for some phrase in English or Greek, and fails, finding only inchoate emotions that cannot be shaped into words. If there were a way without language she would hand this weight to him, but she cannot, and this mute understanding blossoms within her; it is this, she knows, she will have to bear.

         “It doesn’t matter,” he says. “We never know, really, what we would do.”

         This statement hits the air as heavily as a stone thrown into the water. It has the heft of his first real lie. She feels the force of his language, too, rising up against her, for he is thinking with it, within it, while speaking this lie in her tongue.

         “I understand,” he says again, turning now to look at her.

          “Take your silly cap off, Yiorgo, ” she tells him. “You look like a silly American.”

          He will not acknowledge the joke, and continues to cast his gaze to her, pulling her eyes back to his face. In response to his lie, to his look with its brief flash of shame, she says, “I’m glad you understand, I mean, it’s good you do,” placing a hand on his shoulder. He squeezes her fingers briefly and climbs up from the ladder to join her again. 

They sit staring up at the rocks, listening to the water lap at sea grasses. After a time he kisses her on the ear and she embraces him.

          Already she sees herself, a year from now, sitting somewhere else in the sun, trying to describe this day on a canvas, trying to remember this man.