What I Can’t Understand by Jennifer Lee

“You’ll love it, I promise,” Michelle says over her shoulder. She needs both hands on the wheel, letting go only briefly to throw the gears up and down as the road twists higher.  Yiannis sits beside her, smoking as he flips through the radio stations.  In the back, cramped in my coat, I brace myself through the turns. I stare through tired smoke as we draw close to the convent.

Michelle thinks the Church of the Holy Mother is a must-see for any visitor.  She has always loved playing the tour guide, ever since we met in college, and thirty years haven’t changed her any.  I usually refuse, but this time I gave in. Tired, I suppose. When she and Yiannis fetched me from the airport, Michelle peppered me with questions about the wedding. Mostly she wanted to know about the dresses: what the bride wore, what my sister wore. She wanted to know about the food and the flowers and whether anyone behaved badly. Perhaps I agreed to visit the monastery in the hope of changing the subject. I didn’t want to talk about my nephew’s wedding, the shock of seeing that little boy dressed as a man. Worse was the shock of how old my mother was, flanked by my middle-aged brothers, David and Brian. Mom knew where she was and what was happening, but barely had a word to say, as if language, along with the finer points of locomotion, had left her in its wake. Michelle didn’t ask what my mother wore, but she had on a pretty dress of lavender flowers. Evie, my sister, had bought it for her. She dressed my mother the morning of the wedding before attending to her own appearance, the mother of the groom. I sat in the pew behind the others and imagined what it was like, slipping an old woman’s arms into the sleeves of her dress, wriggling her feet into sensible shoes. I was trapped in a time bomb exploding. It was a relief to get on a plane the next day and come to Greece where time has always remained at a standstill, at least for me.

At the convent a bell tower floats against the blue sky. The air is crisp and fresh. We amble toward the entrance where an old woman sweeps the opening of a flagstone courtyard. Wrapped in black, bent by age, she has always been there, the steady sweep of her broom the rhythm of years.  It is terrible how quaint such things can seem, when you are a tourist. The nun sweeps a small hill of dirt and dried leaves into a pile and disappears under the arches. 

Michelle and Yiannis dip into the gift shop and I head for the church, which looks as if it were sculpted by hand from Plaster of Paris. The chapel door is open, and the room within is small, its stones worn smooth. Mosaics on the wall are black with soot, but beside the cross is an icon of the Holy Mother made of polished silver, and it glows.  An embroidered cloth covers a wooden table and I trace my fingers along its laced edge. I’ve never been religious; I find faith and the sentiment it inspires embarrassing. But I admire poetry, and the chapel has the feel of verse that has been memorized, recited for centuries.

The mausoleum has a split door, like a stable.  The bottom half is closed and locked, while the top is held open with a piece of wire.  Inside, musty air surrounds the skulls and other bones of nuns.  My eyes adjust to the half-light, following the gentle curve of femurs. I try counting the skulls, wondering how many are packed on the shelves, if all the bones are accounted for or only some. How old is the oldest bone? A college professor once taught me the Latin phrase memento mori, remember that you must die. We were studying Hamlet and I felt clever, knowing something in Latin. All that was so long ago. I stand at the mausoleum door a long time.

When I turn away, children are running through the courtyard. The sweeping nun guards her pile of dust, raises her broom in reproach as they run past. I look for Michelle and Yiannis, but they have vanished.

I find my friends leaning against the car in the parking lot, smoking cigarettes and waiting for me. Heading back to town, the peace of the monastery is buried by the dizzying twists of the road. I tell Yiannis to roll his window down and I close my eyes in the wind.

  Michelle was surprised when I agreed to come with them to Naxos.  Sometimes when I visit we’ll stay together, either on the island or in Athens, but more often I’ll keep to myself in whatever house they aren’t using.  I come once or twice a year and stay for a week, holed up.  Over the years Greece has become my refuge, a place that revitalizes me when nothing else can.

Once I enjoyed company more; Michelle still remembers those days.  We had started a magazine together, a hip arts rag, and we ran around New York like we owned it. We went to all the best parties.  Then she met Yiannis and started a new life, leaving me to my success.  It has always been enough until now, and I don’t know why I stare out the window at the sea, the light, the striking beauty of Greece, and nothing comforts me.

We were at a tavern near their house in Athens a few nights ago when Michelle brought up the trip to Naxos.  A childhood friend of Yiannis, Nikos Tsoubalis, was performing over the weekend.  Tsoubalis was on his way up, having played some hot spots in Athens over the summer. 

“You should come, Diane,” Michelle said to me.  “People are starting to compare him to Savopoulos.  He’s really good.” She and Yiannis had long ago introduced me to the music of Savopoulos – the Greek version of Bob Dylan.  “Niko grew up on Naxos, in the house next to ours, and is playing at the tavern down the street.”

I said yes to everything: Naxos, Tsoubalis, the convent, all to avoid the strange dread that had entered me. That and because I hoped what she said was true; I wanted Tsoubalis to be the real thing. Music, like Greece, still moves me. And I have an abiding passion for Savopoulos, whose voice reminds me of a train in the distance. 

He sings of politics and love and injustice, same as Dylan, and he is as much a legend.

Only a few streets in the village can accommodate cars.  Coming back from the convent we park on the thoroughfare above Aioulis street and walk to the house, picking our way around the muddy patches of the cobbled path.  On the right side of Aioulis are the remains of a large estate, someone’s chickens running in the yard.  On the left are four narrow houses.  Michelle’s is the second one.  The first, like hers, is owned by an Athenian couple that comes for the holidays.  The other two are inhabited by old women from the village.

What Michelle didn’t tell me when we were making our plans was that the house would be full. It is a small place, only two rooms, and Yiannis’ brother Kostas is staying with his family. That left me sleeping on an army cot at one end of the living room.  Michelle has made up the bed for me, heavy blankets and a space heater nearby. Sitting cross-legged on my pillows is a little boy playing with action figures. “Hello,” I say, and drop my bag at the foot of the bed. The child stares at me, puzzled by my foreignness. I go into the kitchen to make a cup of instant coffee and warm myself by the stove.

Like all the houses on the street, the kitchen was once outdoors. Yiannis and his brother remodeled it themselves, knocking out the wall and installing modern essentials.  It’s still a primitive kitchen, but compared to the house next door, where an old woman still manages with the outdoor arrangement, there’s nothing to complain about.  I remember the first time I came here, in summer, watching the old woman boil beans over the open fire and thinking how quaint it was.  But when I returned in winter it had lost its charm.  The old woman’s hands were raw from scrubbing potatoes under the tap, and she hunched her shoulders under the same shabby, widow’s black sweater she had worn in summer. 

Along the kitchen wall of her house is a rusted staircase lined with pots and pans.  Colanders and dented aluminum basins nestle together in rows.  The stairs look unstable, ending at a decrepit landing with eroded rails, the door to the second floor closed with a padlock. Through the kitchen window I can see all this. Thinking of the old woman whose home I am spying on reminds me of the old nun sweeping the flagstones, and the plague of unease that has been upon me since I left the States returns.

We leave for the tavern at nine, and when we get there the room is half-filled, our own table staked-out by friends of Yiannis and Kostas from the village.  Tsoubalis comes on at ten.  By then all the tables are packed with people and food and drink, smoke snaking a blue haze a few feet below the ceiling.  Roasted lamb and a good wine have finally done what other distractions could not, and I’m warm and enjoying the company.  The room is loud with good feeling, and people shout and applaud when Tsoubalis starts to play. 

Most foreigners don’t like Greek music; it’s hard to appreciate what you you don’t understand.  But secretly I enjoy my lack of comprehension; the feeling of being outside something so intimate and so public appeals to me. And I know when I hear talent. Tsoubalis’s voice sends chills down my back.  Nothing he does is technically difficult, but the pathos of his music holds me. Funny how I don’t know more than a few words of Greek, and yet I understand every song he sings.  He plays my favorite Savopoulos song, one I’ve always loved but never understood.  Translating it into English never helped either, despite Yiannis’s assurance that my translation was correct: 

We live

In a dream that creaks

Like the wooden leg of our grandmother.

But Time, the Truth, is like a child in exile,

It is our son,

The old and the young.

While Tsoubalis sings it, I listen with wings of understanding, but when the last chord fades it is gone, leaving only a memory of what I had grasped. Michelle grabs my hand under the table, leans over and kisses my cheek. She is lit by the bright energy around us. “I’m so glad you’re here,” she says. “Are you having a good time?”

“I am,” I say, surprising myself. I am having a good time. The truth is so fresh and unexpected it brings tears to my eyes.

I tune out the chatter around me and give my full attention to Niko, his long hair hanging down, obscuring shy features.  He wears round wire frame glasses like John Lennon and a gray suit a size too small for his long arms and legs.  He is uncomfortable with the crowd in the moments between songs, and only relaxed when he loses himself in the music.

After an hour he takes a break and comes to sit next to Kostas at our table.  He is across from me and down two places, so I can watch him without being noticed.  I like the way he looks in the eye anyone who speaks to him.

“Niko,” Yiannis says, “I want you to meet Diane, a good friend of ours from New York. She is a magazine editor.” 

Niko turns to face me and says in perfect English, “It is a pleasure to meet you.” 

I reply with something inane, like, ‘I love your music,’ or ‘you play beautifully,’ I don’t know – I can’t hear myself speak.   I’m only conscious of the impression I must be making – the older woman in well-cut clothes; ‘well preserved’ is the term I’m growing into.

Niko smiles and accepts the compliment. Politely he asks about the magazine I edit. When I tell him the name he raises his eyebrow, impressed. Then he asks me what I like most about Greece. Before I can think of a reply that doesn’t seem shallow, something that will strengthen the connection between us, Niko returns to the stage.

My brief conversation with him has left me with that electric feeling of erotic interest.  I haven’t felt like this in years, not since those wild days in the city, when life was waiting for me to grab what I wanted.  I watch Tsoubalis, his long, graceful hands, his poetic face, and rock myself to his tune. I eat my fill from the communal plates and let Yiannis fill my glass again and again. I am content.

I get up to go around midnight and Michelle leaves with me.  The night is clear and cold and we walk in companionable silence.

The house is frigid, the sheets damp with chill.  After such an evening I can’t just lie down – not alone, and not in a bed as cold as mine.  I put the heater on, directing it at the sheets, and Michelle makes us tea.  We don’t say much. The house is quiet, and the noises from next door sound clear through the walls.  The old woman is awake.  We sip our tea and listen to her.  She is moving about in the room, the floorboards creaking.  She speaks, sometimes in a loud voice, sometimes mumbling.

“What is she saying?” I ask.

Michelle listens intently. “She’s not really making any sense.  I think she’s speaking with the Virgin Mary though, because she keeps saying ‘Panayia mou, Panayia mou.’  She’s been getting worse over the last year – confused and disoriented.  I think Niko should do something about her.”

“What do you mean?”

“She’s Niko’s mother. I thought you knew.  From what I hear, he lets people in the village take care of her, bringing her food, taking her home when she gets lost. She can’t look after herself anymore.” 

We sit listening to the neighbor, the good feeling of the tavern getting further and further away.  Michelle finishes her tea and goes to bed, but I stay up a while longer. 

I must have dosed off.  Suddenly I wake with a start, listening to a door bang shut.  The old woman is still in her monologue, but she’s outside, standing in her kitchen.  Pots and pans clatter to the ground and I hear her mount the rusted steps. 

“Michelle!  That woman is on the stairs outside!”  I run out to see her swaying two steps away from the exposed upper landing.  Kyria Tsoubali,” I shout, “Oxi, ella edo.”  I know a little Greek, but not much more than this. Not enough to talk a confused woman out of a dangerous place. I step gingerly on the rusted rungs, kicking the remaining pots out of my way. I try to take her by the elbow and guide her down.  I’m hit by the sour stench of urine on her clothes.  She is difficult to turn, and it takes Michelle and me both to get her to come down.   

“Get her inside, Diane, and I’ll go back to the tavern and tell Niko his mother is upset, see what he wants to do.”  It would have made better sense for me to go to the tavern, I don’t know how I can communicate with this woman, but don’t argue with Michelle.  The truth is, I wouldn’t be able to reconcile the man I saw on stage, the one who raised his eyebrow at my accomplishments, with the son of this woman. I walk her into the house, find the cord for the light bulb and steer her heavy feet over the threshold. Her home is one room. There is a bed, a table and chair, and a wardrobe.  On the table is a plastic statue of the Virgin Mary, an open package of crackers, and an empty yogurt container.  The floor is finished in warped linoleum, and a cockroach scuttles under the bed as we enter.  She is unwilling to lie down, but I insist.  She clutches at my hands from under the blankets, finally speaking to me and not Panayia, but I can’t understand.  So I tell her in English, believing that she will understand the tone of my voice, “Hush, hush.  You’re all right now. You’re home, see?  Everything is okay.”  I pat at the blankets, tucking her in, but mostly I am trying to keep her from taking hold of my hands again.

Michelle is waiting outside. “I told him what happened,” she says. “He said she would calm down once she was back indoors.” 

It is an inevitable conclusion. What did I think he should do, anyway? Niko could be the most devoted son in the world and his mother’s decline wouldn’t be any different than what it is. Still, I can’t forgive him. Or myself.

Michelle goes upstairs to bed and I lay down on the cot.  The old woman is still talking to herself, but quieter now.  I’m glad I can’t understand her words. At the wedding my mother needed help with the stairs, and my brothers graciously guided her where she needed to go. At the reception David asked me to take her to the bathroom. I wrinkled my nose without thinking and he grew angry. “She’s your mother too, Di. Quit acting like you don’t have a family.”

She needed me to lift her dress, pull done her hose. She wore a pad that kept her clothes from getting soiled. Her pubic hair was thin and fading, the soft parts between her legs almost childlike again. Dutifully she tinkled in the toilet.

Mom is lucky to have four children, three of whom care for her so well. Maybe I am as callous as my siblings think, or maybe I am just weak; I cannot bear her mortification.

In my head I hear again Niko’s voice, singing that strange song I love.  The sheets are losing their warmth, even as I lie in them, and I roll myself in a tight ball, trying to remember the words to a song I can’t understand.

# # #
Jennifer Lee is an editor at the Baltimore Review. Her work has appeared in The Greensboro Review, Monkeybicycle, Painted Bride Quarterly and elsewhere. Her work has won the Maryland Writers’ Association short fiction prize and has been nominated for a Pushcart Award. She is currently hard at work on a looming science fiction project, among other things. She lives in Baltimore, Maryland, where she teaches middle school math and pursues her interests.

Photo credit: Rebecca Jasso


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