OFF TO MEET WHAT’S LEFT OF ERIKA…..

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Erika was a tropical storm/hurricane which headed north from the Caribbean a couple of days ago and was scheduled to make landfall in southern Florida yesterday or today – just when I was scheduled to fly in to Tampa for a family visit.

Because I’m a cockeyed optimist, I assumed from the start Erika would take into consideration the fact that I’d been blogging hard all summer and needed this time off. I also assumed United Airlines would cancel a flight only with extreme reluctance and would find a way to circumvent whatever Erika decided to do in order to land my Tuesday flight where it’s supposed to land at about the scheduled landing time.

Erika has proved considerate. She transformed herself into a thunderstorm somewhere over Cuba and is now pouring cats and dogs on parched and thirsty Florida.  But she’s not a hurricane anymore. As you know, I like cats (and dogs), and have an umbrella. I’m also sure United knows how to land planes in the rain.

You should all therefore assume that unless you read otherwise here, I shall be gone from TGOB through Labor Day (more or less). I will have an iPhone with me, so if anyone wants to go on viewing old posts and clicking “like” I will know it and be very pleased. I will also make valiant efforts to keep up with my Reader. However, my fingers are bigger than the keys on the iPhone keyboard, so you mustn’t expect more than monosyllabic comment while I’m away.

Till we meet again, hugs to all.

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AT ROSCOE

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[A story.]

In the summer of 1937, Anna and her mother and father went away to a place in the Catskills called Roscoe. It was during the two weeks her father didn’t have to work. Anna was six. There was a big main building with rooms for guests and a dining room where everyone had meals and also a lounge where grownups played cards, checkers and chess, and listened to the radio and talked after dinner. The swimming pool was on the lawn behind the main building; it had a shallow end for children, and all around it were places to sit and lie in the sun. There were also two much smaller buildings down a slope on the right called Annex A and Annex B; they had only guest rooms in them. Anna and her parents were in a room in Annex A because it was a little cheaper than the rooms in the main building, which each had a private bathroom. The two Annexes had only one bathroom to a floor. But each room in an Annex had its own little sink for light washing up, so sharing a bathroom wasn’t so bad, said Anna’s mother.

The Pool

If you got tired of swimming and sunning at Roscoe, you could go for a stroll to the village in the late afternoon, when it was cooler. In the village was a little store with a wooden floor where Anna’s mother and father would have iced coffee and buy Anna an ice cream cone. But most of the time they stayed beside the pool, where her mother put lotion on herself so as to tan instead of burn, and chatted a bit with other ladies. Her father didn’t use lotion; he sat under an umbrella and had lively conversations with other husbands.

After Anna came out of the children’s end of the pool, she would spread her towel on the grass to hear what was going on. Usually she settled near her mother, because she didn’t understand what the men talked about, like how President Roosevelt had saved us and the bad things that were going on in Germany. But sometimes she found a shady spot near her father’s chair, and that felt better than getting sweaty in the sun where her mother was, even if she couldn’t follow the conversation.

Soon she began to notice that not all the ladies stayed in the sun. When her father was talking, a few of them always moved over to listen. “Your father is such a wonderful raconteur,” said one of these ladies to Anna. “What a lucky little girl you are!”

 Divorcee

The guests at Roscoe were all married to each other except for one lady who wasn’t married any more, although once upon a time she had been. Anna was sorry for her at first because she was the only one without a husband, but the other ladies seemed not to like her. They especially disliked the way her bathing suits showed off the tops of her big boobies, which didn’t droop even a little bit. She also wore makeup all the time, even to the pool. And when she walked, her behind wiggled from side to side. Whenever this lady went to sit under a pool umbrella where the men were, the ladies who stayed behind in the sun near Anna’s mother would talk about her — in soft voices, so she wouldn’t hear.

 Luck

A man sitting by the pool said to Anna’s father that nothing was like it used to be and nowadays you sure needed luck to get by. Anna’s father said, “I’ve got news for you, mister. You always needed luck.” Then he told a story about coming to America with Anna’s mother.

The story took place a long time ago, before Anna was born. Her father and mother were in a big city called Constantinople, in a country called Turkey. They had arrived there on a ship from Russia. Then they needed special papers from the United States in order to get to New York on another ship. But there was a problem. A very powerful third country called England wanted to keep ships from coming in or going out of Constantinople because Constantinople was the only way in or out of Russia by water, and England didn’t like what was happening in Russia. (What was happening was that it wasn’t Russia any more; it had recently become the Soviet Union.) England had many warships, and could do what it wanted, said Anna’s father.   So Anna’s father and mother needed to get those papers very fast, before England decided to act.

“Anyway,” said Anna’s father, “the United States had an office in Constantinople where doctors gave health inspections to anyone wanting to come to America. If you were healthy you could come, but if even a little something was wrong — then you couldn’t, until you went to another doctor and were treated for whatever was wrong with you. Which of course took time. And money.”

“Why was that?” asked a lady who was listening intently. “If it was just a little something?” It was the lady with the big boobies, who had no husband.

“Well,” said Anna’s father, who seemed not to mind being interrupted. “Those doctors in Constantinople weren’t American doctors, who can fix you up one, two, three. No siree! They were Turkish doctors. Out for all they could get!”

Anna’s father went on with his story. He and Anna’s mother arrived at the health inspection office early so he could look around. At the front of the nearly empty waiting room he saw a chair and a small writing table that held two saucers filled with colored buttons — red buttons in one, black in the other. Behind the table he also saw several open medical examination rooms. He didn’t know what the buttons were for, but he put a few of each color in his pockets.

Soon the waiting room filled up and an official-looking person arrived, carrying a big leather-bound book. This person settled himself at the table with the buttons, took out two rubber stamps and a stamp pad, and began to call names from his big book for the health inspections: man’s name, woman’s name, man’s name, woman’s name. Anna’s father heard his name and then her mother’s. The person at the table motioned Anna’s mother into one of the examination rooms and her father into the other. “As soon as my examination was over — and it was very quick, let me tell you,” said Anna’s father, ” the doctor gave me a black button and said I could leave. But when Masha came out of her examination room, she had a red button in her hand! What did that mean? Which color meant yes? Which color meant no?” Anna’s father paused for dramatic effect. “How could I know? What I did know was that — red or black — we should stay together. So I took away Masha’s red button and gave her a black one from my pocket. Then we went together to the official with the rubber stamps. He looked at our black buttons and stamped our papers: ‘Approved.’ We made it onto the last boat out of Constantinople.”

“Oh, that was luck!” said the lady with the big boobies. “Except why did they give Masha a red button?”

“Masha still had long hair,” explained Anna’s father. “They told her she had lice. Of course she didn’t. It was a scam. I later heard that they said that to every woman with long hair. The treatment by another doctor would then cost fifty dollars, which the two Turkish doctors would split.”

On the way back to their room in Annex A, Anna told her mother what she had just heard about the red and black buttons. Suppose her father had guessed wrong? Would he have come to the United States alone? Would her mother have had to go back to Russia?

“Don’t think about that story,” said Anna’s mother.

“Why not?” asked Anna. “It was a lucky guess about the buttons, wasn’t it?”

“Maybe it was, maybe it wasn’t,” said her mother. But she wouldn’t explain what she meant.

 In Annex A

Anna’s father liked to play chess. So did some of the other men at Roscoe.   Mostly they played after dinner in the evenings, but one afternoon after lunch (which you could eat in a bathing suit with just a shirt or robe over it), Anna’s father said it was too hot for him by the pool and he was going to look for a chess game in the lounge. Anna’s mother went back to her blanket and towels on the grass where the women she was friendly with usually sat, and Anna jumped back into the pool. But she had drunk a lot of water and lemonade at lunch, and soon she needed to go. What a bother! It would have been so easy to do it in the pool; no one could see if you stood in water up to your waist. That was wrong though, Anna’s mother had said, because other people used the pool too, and some of the other children even swallowed the water by accident. So Anna dutifully pulled herself up out of the shallow end, told her mother she was going to the bathroom, and hurried along the path to Annex A.

The Annex was dark and still. The maids did the vacuuming and made the beds in the morning; Anna thought now she might be the only one in the building. She and her parents had one of the two front guest rooms on the second floor. Up the stairs she went, as fast as she could. The bathroom on that floor was at the other end of the hall, between the two back guest rooms. She squeezed her thighs together so as not to have an accident. And then — oh dear! — the bathroom door wouldn’t open.

“Hello,” she called, rattling the doorknob. “Is someone in there?”

No answer. How quiet it was. She could hear herself breathing.  “Please? Will you be out soon?”

Nothing. Not a sound.  It wasn’t right. Shouldn’t the person inside answer? At least say, “Just a minute, little girl?”

She tried again. “I really have to go.”  Did she hear a sigh from the bathroom?

The door stayed shut. She clutched herself between her legs and looked around for help. Someone. Anyone. That’s when she saw the door of the back guest room on the right was partly open and the lady with big boobies was sitting at a dressing table inside, combing her dark hair in the mirror and keeping her gaze fixed on the reflection in front of her as if Anna didn’t exist. Hadn’t she heard Anna talking to the person in the bathroom?

The lady was wearing nothing but a slip. It was peach-colored and satiny, with creamy open lace at the edges; you could see the outline of the tips of her big boobies through the satin. Even though the maids had made all the beds in the morning, this lady’s bed was messed up, with the sheets and bedspread thrown back every which way and the pillows tossed around. And even though this lady didn’t have a husband any more, there was something black thrown on a corner of her bed over the tangled sheets that looked like a man’s bathing trunks. They were the kind of black knitted bathing trunks Anna’s father wore.

Then Anna knew she shouldn’t wait any longer for the bathroom door to open. She turned, ran downstairs, out of the Annex, up the path towards the main building, and reached the children’s end of the pool just in time.  Her mother noticed she was back and sat up on her blanket. “Everything all right?” she called.

The sun was in Anna’s eyes. Waist deep in water, she squinted in the direction of her mother.

“Anna? Are you all right?”

That was a different question. Anna nodded yes, she was all right.

           

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….]