A TRUE STORY, MORE OR LESS

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[All the names in what follows have been changed.  Nothing else has.  I give you what I heard.]

Once upon a time, in the very early 1980’s, there was an English lass named Mary Louise who lived in Nottingham, home of Robin Hood’s sheriff.  After she passed her O levels, she began working in an office, typing and filing and generally helping her boss.  She also married a boy from school.  Mary Louise had a younger sister named Cathy Anne who did the same thing two years later — O levels, office work, marriage to a chap from school.  After that, the sisters lived in flats not too far away from each other and their mum and dad.

Cathy Anne stayed married, went on living in Nottingham, and eventually had three children.  Mary Louise and her husband divorced after twenty-one months. It just hadn’t been right.  No hard feelings.  They stayed chums and all that.  But when the divorce was final, Mary Louise decided to celebrate by taking her summer holiday on a Greek cruise boat, with a girlfriend from the office. 

Mary Louise was big. Nice looking if you had a taste for big, but she was just under thirteen stone in weight.  [That’s about 180 pounds.] She wore navy blue a lot, because it was slimming.  However, she kept her naturally brown hair blonde, and she had friendly brown eyes, a generous smile and a genuine liking for people. Although she knew nothing about Greece, and not a word of Greek, she had a grand time on the trip.  The captain and other ship’s officers could speak some English — and they certainly tried to make the passengers feel they were getting value for their money.  There was delicious Greek food, and Greek music and dancing at night, and the first mate, especially, was an amazing dancer.  Slim and straight as a young tree, when he went into action solo he was so fast and graceful it took Mary Louise’s breath away.

Her appreciation must have showed, because he paid her a lot of attention after the dancing.  In his growly Greek-accented English, he said he liked a woman with some meat on her, which made her blush. And when she blushed, he looked at her as if he could eat her up.  After that, he came to find her every single evening.  But he was a perfect gentleman the whole time.  He might not have looked like a gentleman, what with his thick curly hair down to his shoulders, and a bit of stubble on his cheeks and chin.  Her girlfriend said to watch out.  But he never laid a hand on her, except once to help her on with the jacket that went with her sleeveless navy cotton dress on an evening when the breeze came up.

Until the last night.  She knew she’d never see him again when the cruise was over, and that was okay.  She hadn’t expected to.  She was already looking forward to getting home again and telling her mum and dad and everyone in the office all about her holiday, maybe throwing in something about the first mate to show that thirteen stone was not fatal in the romance department.  That’s just when he came over to her as she was looking over the ship’s rail at the dark water.  He had something to ask, he said.  He wanted her phone number. In Nottingham!  What a lot of nonsense. He lived on some tiny little Greek island near Turkey when he wasn’t on the cruise ship. But she gave him the number anyway, because he looked so sexy when he asked.  Then — as swiftly as he danced — he suddenly swept her into his arms and kissed her.  Oh.  That kiss.  She knew she would never forget it.

When they disembarked the next day, it was all business.  He stood in his white uniform between the captain and the second mate seeing the passengers down the gangplank.  He did give her a wink.  But then it was over.

She had moved back in with her parents since the divorce. One evening, about three weeks after the cruise, the phone rang.  Her mum picked it up.  “Mary Louise,” she called.  “For you.  It’s some Greek.”

It was Tomas.  (That was the first-mate’s name.)  He wanted her to come to his tiny island.  For a visit?  No.  To live with him.  He would give up his job on the cruise ship.  His father owned a boat and a little house. He would run the boat with his father, so he could stay on the island with her if she came, and not be cruising the world.  He knew what he wanted, he said.  Did she?

Did she?  From what she had heard, the island had no paved roads, unreliable electricity, no cars. She couldn’t speak a word of Greek. What would she do there, except be with him?  She thought about the office in Nottingham, and the typing and the filing, and finding another chap, and another flat, and hanging up nappies to dry in the kitchen, as Cathy was now doing. And then she thought about the kiss.

Her boss said he’d keep her job open for her for a year.  Her mum said she could always come back. Her dad said she should listen to her mum.  So she went.

He met her at the Athens airport.  They spent the night in Athens because they had to take another plane to get to an island called Leros; the second plane didn’t go but once a day, and they had already missed it. Then they crossed Leros by bus to reach the dock where Tomas’s father was waiting in his boat to pick them up and take them at last to the tiny island near Turkey. “And he never went further than a kiss until his father had met me and approved,” said Mary Louise twenty years later, which was about ten years ago.

But by then she was no longer Mary Louise.  She was Maria.  She spoke Greek badly but without fear, and with a strong Nottingham accent.  She had also lost four stone, and never wore navy blue any more. She zipped around the island on a bright red Vespa, and leaped in and out of small boats as if born to it, and ran a beautiful, stylish set of furnished studios for tourists that had become the island’s “best-kept secret.”  She had two gorgeous children whose first language was Greek, and who spoke English somewhat, although not like English children.  But first she had lived, unmarried, with Tomas for ten years, in one room of a two-room house, in which they slept, made love, ate, and in which she did laundry by hand, cooked, and kept the books for the boat business. Tomas’s father lived in the other room, so she did his cooking and laundry, too.  She also opened a small shop with an Italian woman on the island; the shop — Maria and Teresa — sold lovely long resort dresses and small objets d’art, and bags, and pareos, and got Maria out of the two-room house and talking to tourists, which she loved to do, and let her make shopping trips to Athens, which she loved even more.  But what she loved most of all, and still does, was Tomas, even if he did make her wait ten years before he married her, when she became pregnant with their first child.  And what she worked hardest at was keeping him — with his roving eyes and appetites for a lovely bosom or a well-turned leg.  Her hair stayed blonde, her figure slim, her clothing bold and inviting, her cooking plain, good, Greek and copious. And she has a great belly laugh.

There was no doctor on the island until recently; the one there now is just out of school and on a one-year assignment, after which he leaves and a new medical school graduate arrives.  [Maria flew to England to have her babies — in part to ensure her children had dual citizenship but also to have proper medical care in case anything went wrong.]  Electricity still fails regularly, at which time the toilets fail to flush.  The last time I was there, nearly seven years ago, dial-up internet was just arriving, and only for the businesses in the harbor.

One could therefore say that in many ways, Maria’s life has been physically and emotionally hard.  She lives halfway between the English world she was born into and the Greek island world of her children, who are now entering their twenties.  Tomas has not always been a flawless husband, if gossip on the island is to be believed. And on such a tiny island why shouldn’t it be — in general, if not in detail?  She lives in a country crippled by financial calamities, on an island not likely to be an immediate beneficiary of any European Union assistance that reaches Greece.

Would she have been better off back in Nottingham, with or without that unforgettable kiss?  Does she ever envy Cathy Anne, her sister, living out a probably foreseeable life, albeit in an England of financial austerity?  I don’t think she entertains such questions. Mary Louise grabbed what was offered, and didn’t look back.  Although her name is now Maria, I’m sure she hasn’t changed.

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NOT JUST A NAME ON A CARD

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When in a feeble effort to throw things out, I go through souvenirs of trips Bill and I have made together since our first one to Lipsi and Turkey in the summer of 2002, I frequently find business cards given to us by people of whom I have only a scrap of recollection and whom we will certainly never meet again. Out they go:  the card of a businessman with whom we chatted for twenty minutes in the Istanbul airport almost twelve years ago.  (He thought digital technology was going to be big.)  The card of a couple met on a train from Lugano to Geneva, who were going on to Paris. (The husband, significantly older than the wife, was the youngest of seven Jewish siblings, the other six of whom had all been exterminated by the Nazis during their occupation of France.)  The card of a youngish man who taught English at the University of Vermont and was staying overnight at a bed and breakfast in Antigua, Guatemala in 2005. (He was moving on the next day to a speck of village on the shores of Lake Atitlan, where he had a cottage and his neighbor in an adjoining cottage for part of the year was Joyce Maynard, who in her youth had had an affair with Salinger.)

But there is a man whose card I would keep, if he had given us one.  We spoke with him over a bottle of Makedonia white wine — he did most of the talking — for only two hours or so one evening in the late summer of 2002. He did offer his email address, and later (by email) his street address and phone numbers. However, we never saw him again, although we subsequently exchanged a couple of emails and he also sent us two books, one by someone else for which he had made several drawings, and the other a book of cartoons he himself had done ten or twelve years before we’d met, because we’d asked to see it.

That man’s name, and the Italian e-mail address he gave us, which may or may not still be his, remain on my computer contact list.  His name, the e-mail address, a street address in Milan, one cellphone and two landline numbers also remain in a leather-bound address book I’ve had since 2002.  Would any of this data lead us to him if we tried to get in touch?  I have no idea.  We don’t try.  (What would we say?) But I don’t throw any of it out either.  We might not recognize him if we were to meet him again, but we feel — I feel — we know him.  He’s a friend.  Because of the two hours, and the book.  Sometimes life is funny like that.  And who knows?

Actually, he was the one who first spoke to us. It was during our initial visit to Lipsi, a very small Greek island in the Dodecanese — a one week exploratory stay that led to four more summers there.  On the fifth day of the week we took a boat tour of five speck-sized surrounding islands. Ten euros per person: what could be bad?  The boat was the Margarita, the islands were Makronissi, Aspronissi, Tiganaki, Marathi and Arki. You could only get out at Marathi and Arki (and we did, but more of that another time); the other three were rocky promontories good for photography and for swimming near (but not too near).  Swimming off the side of small boats was not for us.  We did do a bit of photographing, though.  Bill took one of me (and the arms and legs and back of some of the many Italian tourists crowding the Margarita):

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Me, and parts of Italian tourists. On the Margarita, August 2002.

I took one of a lonely-looking little boy sitting by himself:

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And we both photographed the rocks and the water:

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But mostly we did what both of us do best:  We talked with any people who spoke a language in which we could function.  On the way back after lunch and siesta on the sand at Marathi, our talk was mainly with one French couple, because neither of us speak Italian or Greek (the languages of perhaps 90% of the other tourists on the Margarita that day), but I can get by in French and Bill speaks it fairly fluently (although, say the French, with a Geneva accent).  And what people who meet far from home tend to talk about, in an effort to make some connection with each other, is where else they or their families have lived or traveled. So it was with the French husband and me.  We cobbled together a conversation about what had brought his parents to France from their native Latvia and what had brought my parents to New York from their native Russia. (The connection was that both his parents and my mother had come from Vilna, now Vilnius — once Russian, then Polish, then Latvian, but the same city through all the changes of nationality.) Then the Margarita reached land, we all disembarked, and we made an appointment to meet the French couple for supper at a waterside taverna the following evening, which would be our last on Lipsi.

The harbor at Lipsi, August 2002.

The harbor at Lipsi, August 2002.

As we stood uncertainly on the dock, not sure whether or not to head back to our not entirely satisfactory room to clean up right away, a man spoke to us, somewhat apologetically, in fluent German-accented English. He had been on the Margarita, he said, and had overheard my conversation with the French husband.  He asked if I still lived in New York.  I explained that I didn’t (those were my Boston years), but had grown up there and knew it very well.  It seemed he had traveled extensively in the Western Hemisphere, had lived in the United States for a while, enjoyed his time there, and liked Americans very much.  He wondered if we could have a drink together after supper.  His wife and son were somewhat tired from the five-island excursion. They had actually done all the swimming offered at all three rocky promontories. (Quite coincidentally, the boy I had inadvertently photographed was his son, who resembled his Italian mother.) So they wouldn’t be joining us, but if we didn’t mind….

Of course we didn’t mind.  And that’s how, later that evening, we got to know at least a little something about a tall, good-looking man from Switzerland who was then about fifty, and who had fallen in love with a woman from Milan, married her, and now lived there himself.

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Caspar,  c.1990 — about twelve years before we met him. [Photo credit: Caspar Frei.]

Caspar was primarily a cartoonist — a political one, for the most part.  He sold his work throughout Europe. (He also knew five languages.)  I can’t recall everything we talked about that evening, although I do know that conversations with Bill and me tend to be one-sided, since we are both professionally very good at asking questions.  So what I mainly remember is that we soon got down to Caspar’s thoughts about the meaning of life, whether it had any purpose, and if so what purpose. And after that, we reached his feelings — of being split between longing for life in Switzerland, where he had been born and spent his childhood and where his mother and family still lived, and his connection to Milan, where his wife — who was a psychotherapist — had family, including a problematic mother for whom she felt responsible, as well as a referral network and clients who depended on her, and where his child was in school and growing up Italian.  When they married, they had initially settled in Milan, he said, because he could work anywhere and she could not. But now he felt torn by competing ties, and saw no resolution….

If Caspar ever sees this account of my memory of that night, I hope he forgives me the details. They may be wrong. It was one evening twelve years ago. But I’m pretty sure I’ve got the thrust of it right.  Life is hard.  Life is painful. Whatever we do, we hurt someone we love.  Whatever we do, we hurt ourselves. And sometimes we can say to strangers what must not be said to those who are not strangers.

He and his wife and son were leaving the next day.  We never saw him again.  (We never saw the French couple again, either.  They stood us up.) He sent his two books though, and for a while we discussed by email our coming to Florence and Milan for a visit the following winter.  But Bill and I were still working — at jobs that didn’t permit spontaneous flights to Italy to check in with new friends. So nothing came of it.  Several years after that, he was in Florida on business and had a day free before his return flight.  Knowing it would likely be impossible, he asked anyway if we could meet him there.  Of course, we couldn’t.  (I also suspect he had far more discretionary money than we did, the kind of money that can make things happen right away, if they must.  But we never discussed anything like that.)

However, I would be leaving you with a very lopsided view of him if I didn’t also disclose some of the contents of the second book he sent us.  I’ve omitted that part of his work which is most bitter and mordant, and also whatever requires knowing German, a knowledge I lack.  (Although I did manage to translate, roughly, what the man on the book cover is writing to his beloved.)  

[As the cover notes  — and you should too — all cartoons that follow are by Caspar Frei.]

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My love, believe me! These words, from deep in my heart…..

Some are cute, or sweet:

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Some have more bite:

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And some make a trenchant point:

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This is Bill’s favorite:

(Bill's favorite.)

And these are what?  Swiss whimsy?

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After I thought of doing this piece, I went right to Google — mainly to make sure nothing bad had happened since 2002.  Unfortunately everything I found is in German, including a You Tube five-minute segment of Caspar explaining something or other about illustrating a children’s book.  It was made in 2009, and he looks considerably older than in the 1990 photograph above, or even than I remember him looking in 2002. On the other hand, I did decipher another link that describes him as “Swiss-Italian” and says he now lives both in Switzerland and Milan, so perhaps he has found some closure for at least one aspect of his difficulties now that twelve years have gone by.

But Bill and I don’t really know the man in the You Tube segment.  The one whose name and addresses and telephone numbers I keep is the one who wrote us a note soon after our meeting:

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I wish we had had more time to talk too, Caspar.  Maybe someday there’ll be a time when we have more time…..

AN ISLAND OF THEIR OWN, PART 3

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[…continued from previous two posts…]

Suddenly Sarah had less than a month to get ready.  A tiny island.  That meant beaches.  And a bathing suit.  She had not bought, or worn, a bathing suit since her sons were still coming home for the summer.  She could not face her aging white thighs in a Saks or Neiman mirror and ordered one black “tankini,” whatever that was, from the Lands End catalog.  One, she calculated, should be enough.  She still owned an ancient polka-dot cotton suit she could bring in case the “tankini” didn’t dry overnight.

Jake caught her trying on the tankini in the seclusion of the bedroom. “Whatcha doing, sweetie pie?”  he asked.

“Shoo!” She pushed him gently back out the bedroom door with one hand while clutching a pillow against her lower half with the other.  “Don’t look! It’s supposed to be a surprise!” One of the good things about living alone, she thought as she leaned against the closed door, was that you could do body and wardrobe maintenance in privacy.  Why did Jake always need so much togetherness?  The following week, she hurried to Saks on a lunch hour for tanning spray.  Old thighs looked better brown than white.

Jake inspected Sarah’s suitcases in the basement and pronounced them too big.

“You don’t want to bring too much stuff,” Jake said.

“Nobody’s going to help you get your luggage on and off those Greek boats,” Jake said.

“You need a new bag,” Jake said.

“I’ll come with you,” Jake said.

They went to Luggage World, where she bought a red Victorinex roll-on not much smaller than the ones she already had and not cheap either.  She was pretty sure she could have managed without this purchase.  But Jake, as she was beginning to be aware, enjoyed shopping.  While they were there, he bought two small black leather bags for himself. They were the size of toiletry kits.

“What do you need those for?” asked Sarah.

“Nothing at the moment,” he said.  “I just like bags.  And you never can tell when an extra one will come in handy.”

Odd.  But then Sarah’s mother had been a collector of boxes.  After they got Sarah’s new red Victorinex home, Jake decided he liked it so much he went back to the store by himself the next day and bought a slightly smaller grey one exactly like it.  He also bought two black leather luggage tags.

The two Victorinexes — bigger red and smaller grey — stood against the bedroom wall with their tags on, waiting to be packed.

“They look good side by side together, ” Jake said.

“Just like us,” Jake said.

He hugged her.  Maybe it really would be a honeymoon.

Sarah made packing lists and folded her clothing into neat piles.  She spread towels on the duvet to protect it and opened the two Victorinexes  on the bed — grey on Jake’s side, red on hers.  Jake laid two changes of underwear and socks, two clean shirts, a pair of sandals, three black swim briefs, and an extra pair of jeans on the towel next to the grey Victorinex.

“That’s all you’re taking?  For three weeks?”

“It’s very casual on those islands,” he said. “Besides, we can wash things out.  Or buy stuff.” He added two t-shirts to the clothes on the bed and began zipping smallish hard objects into little black bags, which he zipped into slightly bigger black bags.

I’m not doing laundry on vacation.”  Sarah counted out eleven pairs of panties.  (Who would know if she wore underwear for two days?  Plus she would have a pair on for traveling.)  The panties were full-size cotton briefs. (Sarah didn’t buy bikini panties any more; they cut a line you could see through her clothes in the rear view mirror.) Together with four bras (two black, two white), all those panties made quite a bundle.  And the pear shape of the Victorinex was not as accommodating as a rectangular bag.  Why had they left the packing till the final evening?  Why was he distracting her by rushing back and forth between the second bedroom, which she had given over to him as a study, and the master bedroom?   She needed to concentrate, or she would leave something out.  Correction.  She would have to leave something out.  The red Victorinex wouldn’t close.  Even when she sat on it.

“How many dresses for dinner?” she asked.

“None. You don’t have to dress.”

“And what about a sweater?”

“In Greece?  In August?”

“Just asking.”

“You gotta be kidding.”

“Don’t get nasty.”  She stared at his side of the bed.  He had built a heap of bulging zipped-up black bags and books next to the grey Victorinex.  “What is all that stuff?”

“Things I’ll need.”

“Like what?”

“Like a short-wave.  My camera.  Extra pairs of glasses.  First-aid kit.  Notebooks. Clothesline. Reading material. Other things.”

“What other things?”

“Never mind.  You’ll find out when we get there.  Maybe.”

“You won’t fit it all in.”

“So I’ll bring a second bag.”

At midnight, they brought up some of Sarah’s old luggage from the basement.  At one o’clock, four bags stood fully packed by the front door.  At two, Sarah got out of bed to check that their passports and tickets and insurance papers were all in her handbag.  “Did you bring enough money?” she whispered into his good ear after she had slid back under the duvet. “Mmmmmm,” he said.  She wasn’t sure he’d heard. Hopefully, there would be ATMs on this tiny island they had found.

[End of chapter one.]

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[The island was real.  Its name was Lipsi — Lipsoi or Lipsos, if you want to be Greek about it.  Sometimes I miss it, although it was never really our island.  We were just renters.  Even in the novella, where I was going to call it Mythos, it would turn out not to be Jake and Sarah’s island. They would learn by the end of the novella that the island of their own they had set out to find was the island of two they were making together. And that at their age, they were stuck there — whether they liked it or not — for richer or poorer, till death did them part, and had better make the best of it.  But that’s too dark for a chick lit novella.  And also not so fun to write.

So you’ve reached the end of Jake and Sarah.  However, we may take some day tours of Lipsi, you and I together.  Maybe this spring.  Or summer.  If spring and summer ever come.]

 

AN ISLAND OF THEIR OWN, PART 2

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[…continued from yesterday…]

Getting away for three weeks was no problem for Jake; he simply informed his patients that he would be gone in August and then found another shrink to cover for him in emergencies.  Sarah had to make more elaborate and extensive preparations.  Although the lawyers at her firm were supposed to take four weeks off every year (“We work hard but play hard,” was the mantra intoned for the benefit of incoming associates) — taking the four weeks, or even three weeks, all together was just not done.  (Suppose a client needed you!)  The customary modus operandi was a week here, two weeks there — as each lawyer’s practice, and annualized billable hours, permitted.

Sarah began announcing her vacation plans in May.  She announced them more frequently — at the coffee station, in the womens’ john — in June.  She made sure none of her cases was headed for trial over the summer and found colleagues to handle what needed to be done while she was away (thereby incurring several heavy IOUs).  In July she stopped taking on new matters and began to emphasize, at firm lunches, how difficult this tiny island was to get to. (She didn’t mention Turkey.) She explained that Greece was seven hours ahead of Boston, that she didn’t know if there was a telephone available to her on the island anyway, and that she understood from Jake mail could take as long as six weeks to arrive  — much of that period consumed between the time it got to Athens and arrived at its final destination — so that she would, as a practical matter, be unreachable during the time she was away.  “You’re so lucky!” exclaimed Mabel, the lawyer in the office adjoining hers.  “I always have too much on my plate for more than a week in Chatham!”

Sarah considered this comment to be less about three weeks away from the office in Greece than about the arrival of Jake in her life.  Mabel was eighteen years younger than Sarah, in the process of a drawn-out divorce, and frantically looking for a replacement husband. To her, Sarah’s near-miraculous acquisition of a new man represented a major triumph over the adversities of life for the older woman, and Sarah saw no reason to disabuse her.  Maybe Jake wasn’t absolutely perfect, she told herself, but she was pretty lucky.  How many women of seventy were going off to a small Greek island for a romantic tryst?

Privately, however, as August grew closer, she became less sure she was doing the right thing. Could three weeks away be a professional mistake?  She needed this job. If only she could just quit — and play the piano, travel, cook, maybe write, not always be hurrying to make deadlines, attend meetings, defend depositions.  The practice of law took a lot out of you. Even with a four-day work week, she always felt tired, and usually spent most of Friday just resting up.

But if she quit, what would she live on? Sarah had come late to the law, after marriages to two impecunious husbands who had nothing to share at divorce time. Social Security would barely cover her monthly mortgage and condo association payments. And she certainly couldn’t count on Jake’s contribution as a basis for retirement when — if she were honest with herself — they didn’t really know each other that well.  Not the way she knew her husbands by the time they had parted.

Then it became too late to cancel without losing a lot of money. And Jake would never forgive her if she put the firm before him. (“The firm?” she could hear him saying.) She would just have to apply herself seriously when she came back, and people would soon forget she’d been away for nearly a month, and then everything would be all right.

“So.   How does it feel to go away for three weeks with this man?” asked Feldman, long, thin and wrinkled. She had been seeing Feldman before work on Wednesdays for fifteen years. No one who knew about this could understand why she was still forking out good money for talk therapy now that she was long divorced.

“I don’t fork out anymore,” she would say.  “It’s Medicare’s turn.”  Or: “I can’t leave a husband until I have a shrink, and I can’t leave a shrink until I have a husband.”  Or (sometimes): “You know how Catholics go to confession once a week and feel better afterwards?  Well, here’s a place where I can go once a week and say absolutely anything and it’s okay.  I can just unload.  Where else in the world can you do that?”

That didn’t mean Feldman wasn’t often annoying.  His reluctance to say anything substantive, for instance.  (Was he just going to sit there?  “Of course,” he always replied.)  And his questions  — straight out of some How To Be A Shrink book. (“How does that make you feel?”)  Once, during the long lonely period preceding the arrival of Jake in her life, she had begun a session by exclaiming, without being asked, that she felt like shit.  He regarded her impassively.  “How does it feel to say that?” he asked.

“How does it feel to say I feel like shit? Come on, Feldman!”

“How does it feel?”  (Without even a smile.)

And now he was at it again.  “Jake,” she said.  “His name is Jake.  Why are you calling him ‘this man?'”

“There have been other men, no?  The two husbands?  Two old boyfriends, recycled? So when I ask today, my question is about this man.”

But Sarah already knew Feldman couldn’t admit he might be wrong.  “It feels fine to go away with Jake for three weeks, thank you for asking.”

“You have been very picky about your previous suitors,” he persisted.  “You go fishing for a new man from time to time, reel him into the boat, inspect him as he dangles at the end of your line, then flip him back into the sea. How is this one different?”

Suitors?  What suitors?  Those few pitiful specimens who had answered her previous ads?  The one seeking a woman willing to encase herself in soft rubber garments at bedtime?  The one whose wife had mid-stage Alzheimers, but was safely out of the way on Gardiners’ Island under the care of a round-the-clock nurse’s aide?  The one with an ileostomy bag and an adult daughter in a state psychiatric hospital?

“Oh, Feldman,” said Sarah, “stop already.  If there’s any problem, it’s not with the man, it’s with the three weeks away from the office.”

Feldman took her mention of “three weeks” as an opportunity to change the subject.  “You understand the time you will be taking off, the three hours we will not meet during your weeks away — those are your hours, and you will be responsible for them,” he said.  He meant that he expected her to pay for the three sessions she would miss.  They had had this conversation every year she had gone on vacation.  Usually, it had been for only a week at a time; needy, and therefore in a weak bargaining position, she had always paid.  The two Greek tours had taken longer, and each of those years she had paid for two missed sessions, resentfully but without any sense that arguing would do any good.  This time she dug her heels in.  She was on a tight budget for the vacation as it was.

“How come you don’t give me make-up sessions when you go away on vacation?” she demanded.

He looked surprised.  “That is a separate issue entirely,” he said.  “When I go away, you are of course free to go away yourself.”

Now there’s a dumb argument, she thought.  “It isn’t a separate issue at all.  If you’re entitled to a vacation from me, with the result that I lose out on therapy, then I’m entitled to a vacation from you, even though you lose out on income.  Fair is fair, Feldman.”

“Are you saying you won’t pay?”  His voice quavered a little.

“I don’t pay anyway,” said Sarah.  “Not any more.  Maybe Medicare can pay for the missed sessions.”

“It doesn’t work that way,” said Feldman.  “Medicare pays for treatment, not absence from treatment.”

“Then why should I pay for missed sessions if Medicare won’t? Tell you what, Feldman.” She had him now, she was sure of it. “Let’s leave it up to you, not me.  If, as you say, the missed hours are ‘mine,’ I won’t rat on you if you bill Medicare for them.  And if you decide you’re not entitled to Medicare payments for treatment you didn’t provide, that’s obviously okay with me, too.”

Aha!  He was slowly nodding agreement. Had she just connived in an act of insurance fraud?  Not really, she decided.  Not by merely making the suggestion.  After all, she didn’t know what he was actually going to do.

“Of course he’s going to bill for his time!” said Jake that night at dinner.  A piece of eggplant from the ratatouille they were eating fell on the tablemat as he waved his fork in the air for emphasis.  Jake’s table manners had deteriorated since he had begun to feel at home in her condo.

Sarah reached over to pick up the eggplant  — she hated mess — and put it in her mouth.  The mat now had a stain.  She sighed. Neither of her husbands had been neat eaters either.  “How do you know that?  Why can’t you admit he might do the right thing?”

“He needs the money.”

“He can’t be that hard up,” said Sarah.  “He’s one of the two best psychiatrists in all of New England!”

“Yeah, yeah,” said Jake.

“No, really.  I asked around before I started with him.  And I can never change the time of the appointment.  He’s always full up.”

Jake laid his dirty knife on the mat to explain.   “I don’t care how busy he is. Psychiatrists aren’t like orthopedists or dermatologists.  Those guys have a revolving door: patient in, patient out, new patient in, etcetera.  But Feldman sees a fixed number of patients for years, including you.  He can’t start with someone new for the three weeks you’re away, because when you return he has to give you back your hour.  And then what’s he supposed to do with the extra patient?  So a loss of income when you’re on vacation is just that.  A dead loss.”

Sarah hated not to win arguments.  “He shouldn’t count on it then.  Why can’t he assume each of his patients will be away a certain amount of time and average his income over the year, instead of anticipating a specific accounts receivable every month?”

“Why didn’t you ask him that?” said Jake.  “While you were at it, you might also have explained to the poor bastard what he was supposed to do about his monthly checks to her?”  He jabbed his finger in the direction of the floor.

(The ex-Mrs. Feldman lived beneath Sarah.  They did not get on.  She objected repeatedly to Sarah playing the phonograph.  She complained loudly about Sarah practicing the piano in the evening. They had eventually worked out their differences with the help of the condo trustees, but accidental meetings in the stairwell or the laundry room remained chilly.   Such being the case, Sarah welcomed those occasional instances when the mailman mixed up their mail, thus affording her the opportunity to inspect the outside of the ex-Mrs. Feldman’s correspondence.  In the days before Medicare began paying for her therapy, she had once even found in her mailbox an envelope addressed to Linda Feldman in the familiar, and highly idiosyncratic, handwriting which appeared on her monthly invoices for professional services rendered by Martin Feldman, M.D.  She couldn’t resist holding it up to the light before putting it on the ledge below the mailbox labeled Ms. Linda Feldman.  There was a check inside.  Alimony!  Her money was leaving the building only to come right back again.  She was personally supporting that odious woman.  She couldn’t read the amount of the check, though.)

“Ah yes, that,” said Sarah.

“He’ll be working till she drops,” said Jake.  “Or he does.  How old is she?  How old is he?  Over seventy-five?”

“Why are you so sympathetic to him all of a sudden?” asked Sarah.  “I thought you didn’t like him.”

“I don’t not like him,” said Jake.  “I just don’t like his method.  This silent Freudian business.  Besides, what do you need him for, now you have me?”

Sarah did not want to go there.  “Must we discuss Feldman’s financial difficulties?” She pushed her chair back to clear the table.  His place mat would have to go to the cleaners.  She should probably get the kind you could just wipe down.   “Dessert is frozen yogurt or grapes.  Which?”

[…to be concluded tomorrow….]

AN ISLAND OF THEIR OWN, PART I

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[Bill and I met in April 2001. I was by then already committed to a fifteen-day summer tour of the Greek mainland, plus Corfu, with a woman friend. So Bill and I didn’t begin to travel together until the following summer.  We thought we might go back to Greece.  I had enjoyed my 2001 mainland tour, and he had a twenty-year history of summer vacations on Lesbos with his second wife and his two children from that marriage. Obviously, Lesbos was out. (At least as far as I was concerned.) But we found a tiny island in the Dodecanese — the smallest of the twelve — and booked an exploratory room for a week, to be followed by a two-week tour of Turkey.  The outcome of the Greek week was that we returned to that little out-of-the-way island for chunks of four more summers. The year I was on sabbatical, we even stayed for a two-and-a-half month chunk.

During that time, I began writing a novella about our visits there. It was going to be called “An Island of Their Own.”  I never got past the first chapter.  Bill and I learned a lot about each other during those summers, since we were together all the time, without the distractions of work and connections to other people and family.  As a result, I was then really too close to what was going on with us to write about it with any understanding.  Now I’m too far away:  the Jake and Sarah in the novella have gone on to another stage of their life together and I’m no longer interested in the early stages of their relationship. However, I still have some nearly illegible notes.  Some not very good photographs. Some ouzo-fueled observations. And that first chapter.  Which may just be too fun to throw away. 

So I’m starting there.  “Island of Their Own” will run in three parts:  today, tomorrow, and the day after tomorrow.  But I’m not changing it back to the first person.  It reads better the way it is.  Just know that there won’t be any more of Jake and Sarah after their opening chapter.  Jake and Sarah are geriatric chick lit.  And although I can mimic the tone for a while, I’m not really into chick lit.  If I go on with my recollections of the island from time to time, and I may, you’ll get it straight after this first bit, the way Bill and I experienced it, without fuzzing the line between what really happened and what didn’t by telling you about two other people who exist only in the words I used to conjure them up.]

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AN ISLAND OF THEIR OWN

When Sarah met Jake for the first time in the Rialto bar at the Charles Hotel, she was sixty-nine and three-quarters and he was seventy-three.  He said later that he had sized her up as not over sixty and was surprised when she told him the truth.  (“Why should I lie?” she had asked.  “You’d find out sooner or later.”)  The truth made no difference. As soon he saw her walk in, looking slender and French in her well-cut black pants and little black velvet beret, he said to himself, “That’s for me!”

For her part, she thought he was probably younger than she was.  He was slim, had nice shoulders and a full head of dark hair, and his skin was smooth and relatively unlined, except on the neck (which usually went first).  When he confessed to seventy-three, she was disappointed. Any number that started with “seventy-” sounded old to her. She did not feel, and knew she did not look, her age, and had been hoping to meet someone no older than sixty-five.  (She was still thinking about sex.).  But everything else seemed promising.  He was well educated, had spent many years in Europe, was still working — as a psychiatrist — and lived only five minutes away from her condo.  And she liked his voice.  Although he’d been born in Bridgeport, when he answered her ad on the phone she heard New York.  She’d been away from New York for a long time.  He sounded like home.

Besides, it wasn’t as if she were committing to anything if she agreed to see him again.

He wiggled in on the second date.

In her ad, she had said she wanted someone for “a long hurrah.” She meant a very close man friend with whom to spend weekends and holidays, and to share things with. Not someone to live with.  He said he wasn’t really interested in living alone.  But he didn’t make a big point of it.  He just kept spending the night, and spending the night, and within a few weeks, it began to look as if he were paying rent on his apartment principally to electrically heat his books and extra clothing.  After a while, he introduced her to his adult children.  So she had to introduce him to her adult children. With some hesitation (it was not a good idea to show up with someone who might not be in her life next year), she brought him to the office Christmas party.  At tax time, she agreed to help him with his returns.  (She was better at dealing with paper than he was; she was a lawyer.)   Finally, when his lease was up at the end of the year, she had to concede that it made economic sense for both of them if he moved into her condo, sharing all the expenses, of course.

It seems they had become a couple.

They decided to spend part of their first summer holiday together in Greece.  Sarah had been to Greece only twice.  The first time she had gone alone on an expensive last-minute trip she discovered in the back pages of The New Yorker after a sometime boyfriend who had moved to the West Coast suddenly backed out of a tour of Scandinavia they had been planning together, claiming he was too old for such an energetic junket.  He was only two years older than Sarah, but was overweight and suffered from sleep apnea; as a result, he had had to retire from practice after he repeatedly fell asleep while representing his clients in court. Now he was sleeping with a machine that forced air into his lungs when he stopped breathing during the night. If they went traipsing from place to place in Scandinavia, he explained, the machine — which was heavy — would have to come, too.  And he couldn’t deal with that.  Maybe she could come spend her vacation at his new place in Rancho Mirage?  There were some terrific restaurants in Palm Desert.

“Why didn’t you bring this up before?” Sarah asked.  “We only have two days to cancel or we lose our deposits.”

“I just thought of it,” he said, sounding not at all apologetic.  “So do you want to come out here instead, or not?”

“A gated community in Rancho Mirage?  No, thank you,” she said.  “I’m not ready for that.”

The long distance line crackled.  “We have a bad connection,” he announced happily.  “Talk to you later.”

That first trip to Greece had been worth every penny.  A vigorous tour guide named Vicky had shown Sarah and two married couples from the midwest the antiquities of Athens, Leros, Patmos, Rhodes, Crete and Santorini — all in twelve days.  They traveled from island to island by boat and plane, slept in accommodations that to Sarah were extremely luxurious, and ate delicious copious meals at restaurants where the owner seemed to turn out onto the table the entire contents of his kitchen for the six of them.  It was a little lonely; Sarah had almost nothing in common with either of the married couples, and Vicky spent much of the “free” time on the schedule preparing her lecture for the following day. But the experience was enjoyable enough for Sarah to commit to a second, less expensive Greek tour the following June — of the mainland plus Corfu this time, and with a recently widowed woman friend from Washington, D.C.

Sarah liked standing in the warm sun among the tumbled ruins of small cities that had flourished thousands of years ago and imagining what it might have been like to be a woman then.  She liked pressing her nose against glass protecting artifacts of another time and place and culture.  (How would she have looked in that heavy gold necklace? What kind of perfume was kept in that delicate glass flacon?) The second tour ended in Athens, where Sarah and her friend stayed on alone for three more days, perspiring their way along hot paved streets according to cultural itineraries prepared by Sarah.

“We can do it!” she insisted.

“It’s the Bataan death march,” cried her friend. She wanted to go back to their cool hotel room and read a mystery.

“We may never be here again,” said Sarah.  “And there’s so much to see!  Don’t you want to live, really live, before you die?”

Jake was already familiar with Greece.  For six weeks every summer he and his now detested second wife had gone to Lesbos — first with one and then two children — until their long wretched union finally crumbled.   “Lesbos was the best part of the marriage,” he would reminisce.  “I was almost happy there.  The kids stopped fighting.  She was less mean.  Once she even let herself be kissed.  Although she wasn’t much of a kisser, so I don’t know why I remember that.”

By then Sarah had heard enough about what was wrong with the second wife. “If you loved going to Greece so much why did you stop going once you were on your own?”

Jake shrugged.  “I was depressed after the divorce.  And the kids said she was still going. What I didn’t need was to see her ass spread out on the beach in a bikini one more time.”  He smiled engagingly.

“But there are a gazillion Greek islands!”  Sarah exclaimed.  “You didn’t have to go back to Lesbos!”

That’s right!” he agreed.  “How did you get so smart?  Let’s find an island of our own.”

Jake had many travel books on Greece.  Sarah was content for him to do the preliminary searching.  “Just not Corfu,” she cautioned.  “Too many green flies and mosquitoes.”  Sarah was appetizing to summer insects of all kinds; since childhood, they had singled her out frequently and savagely (multiple bites per body part) — leaving parents, and then friends and husbands, unbitten.   She was also allergic to the bites, each of which itched viciously until the bitten parts of her were all well covered in scabs.

“There are no bugs in Greece,” said Jake authoritatively.  “It’s mountainous and stony and dry.”

“Have you ever been to Corfu?” asked Sarah.  “It’s green, and humid and buggy.  Too close to Italy is why.  Let’s skip the Ionian islands. What about the Aegean?  Almost all the islands on my first trip were in the Aegean. I didn’t get a single bite!”

Jake didn’t mind turning the page on Corfu.  If he could have afforded it, and Sarah had been willing, he would gladly have spent the rest of his life exploring any and all beautiful corners of the world — as long as they weren’t American.  (He was much given to delivering himself of speeches that began, “The trouble with this country is….”)  His investment portfolio being too small for him even to contemplate retirement and extensive travel (he had had a really awful divorce lawyer, said Sarah), he had developed the habit of satisfying his wanderlusts in his study. He loved looking at large color photographs of small white villages nestled at the foot of rocky promontories and fronting brilliantly blue curved bays and harbors where he had not been.  “Oh, this is so gorgeous!” he would exclaim.

Sarah, sitting at the computer (Jake didn’t know from computers), cared less about “gorgeous” and more about nailing down something promising and available before summer was upon them.  “Honey, we can’t take months salivating over pictures of islands,” she would reply.   “We have to pick one.”   (More than half a year of togetherness had already taught her it was better to preface remarks of this kind with “Sweetheart” or “Lovey” or “Honey.”)

The second wife had never called Jake “Honey.”

He picked one.

Very small, and without an airport.  You reached it by ferry, or catamaran, or Flying Dolphin, or private boat. It was in the Dodecanese, near Turkey not Italy, and therefore probably bugless.  The woman Jake spoke with at the Greek National Tourist Office in New York had never heard of it.  (She said she would have to call him back.) “Just what we’re looking for!” he told Sarah.

It was spring 2002 and the exchange rate was averaging  $1.10 to the euro.  They booked sleeping accommodations for a week at 28 euros a night through the only English-language website for the island that Sarah could find.  Only a week because, as Sarah said, “What if it’s a bust?”   To justify the airfare, they also arranged a two-week bus tour of Turkey for the rest of the vacation.  Jake was against bus tours in principle, but agreed with Sarah that if they wanted to cover all the high points — Istanbul, Gallipoli, Izmir, Ephesus, Pammulkali, Aphrodisias, Antalya, Cappacodia, Ankara, and Bursa — they probably wouldn’t be able to manage by themselves, even in a rented car, without speaking the language.

The e-mail confirmation for their Greek accommodations arrived in perfect English.  It even had semicolons, in the right places.  Sarah went online to look again at the amateurish color photographs of the place; they still did not really inspire confidence. “Don’t you think such a tiny island will be boring?” she asked Jake.

“Boring?  How can you even think such a thing?”  He sighed with anticipatory happiness.  “It’s going to be our honeymoon!”

[…to be continued tomorrow….]