Shedding the Past

An old house in Kerameikos

An old house in Kerameikos

I once met a guy in Atlanta who had disappeared. He had taught English at a university in New England, had a wife and friends, traveled to conferences and wrote papers. Then one day he left. No forwarding address, no farewell letter. Only the Social Security Administration knew he still existed as Richard Phelps (I’m making the name up of course, he didn’t reveal his former name to me). I imagine his wife had called the police and filed a missing persons report. I don’t know how much the police actually looked for him, but he was never “found”. He kept in contact with only two or three friends in whom he had an almost blind faith and whom he trusted would never reveal his current whereabouts. One of these was my friend, Eric, with whom I had traveled to Atlanta for a conference and who introduced me to Richard.

Many of the unexplained disappearances documented in sites (a long list on Wikipedia) are not in fact that hard to explain. X disappeared on an expedition in Borneo, or Y was lost kayaking in some god-forsaken canyon in the wilds of Manitoba or Z went missing on a walkabout in the Australian outback.  It doesn’t require much imagination to piece together their last hours. These are accidents of fate. With somewhat more difficulty you can explain even the case of Trevor Deely, aged 22, who disappeared after a Dublin Christmas party. You think, ok, maybe he got drunk and fell off a bridge and drowned. But Richard Phelps was different.

Richard went to Atlanta to start a new life. I mean, a life radically different from the one had lived in New England, complete with a black lover 25 years his junior. (This was not the reason for his disappearance; he only met Michael after he had been in Atlanta for a couple of years). Richard said he hadn’t really thought much about where he’d go. He said he just wanted to be somewhere that was warmer than Boston, but I don’t think Atlanta was all that random a choice. He could’ve settled down in Montgomery, Alabama or Jackson, Mississippi, but he didn’t. Atlanta is arguably the most Boston-like city in the American South, and in Richard’s case, this was not coincidental.

The circumstances of Richard’s life may have changed—he was living in a bungalow on the edges of the city and didn’t have a tweed jacket in his closet—but I don’t he managed to entirely shed his former self. There are some things that are so indelibly ingrained in the way you think and feel and talk and move that they stay with you even when you’ve rejected them. Things like how polite you are to shopkeepers, how you react to a compliment or an insult or a flirt, or whether you lick the rim of a yogurt container after finishing its contents, habits reinforced by countless repetitions that they’ve become part of who you are. No, not part. They are who you are. And it requires too much effort and discipline to change. When I swim, my left catch is shallower than my right and I don’t roll as much on one side as the other. I’m aware of this and try to compensate. I can do it for the first kilometer of a swim, but then I lapse into my familiar but inefficient stroke for the next two. A coach would tell me to stop when my stroke starts decaying, rest and start again. But that’s just the point when the endorphins have kicked in, and though the hydrodynamics of my swim suffer, I keep swimming because it feels so… comfortable.

Even though I’ve lived in Greece half my life, I will never pass for a Greek. Friends have said I speak better Greek than they do; this, of course, is just a nice compliment about how much better I speak Greek than other Americans they’ve met, but it also means I speak a “proper” but highly unidiomatic Greek. And I’m not even sure about the “proper” part. I occasionally make mistakes that native speakers never make. And the language, however well I can use it to explain, seduce, cajole, argue or negotiate, still isn’t second nature to me. Switching from English to Greek feels like getting on a heavy clunky city bike after having ridden a titanium-frame racing bicycle.

That night in Atlanta Richard made us pork chops and mashed potatoes and a salad of shredded red cabbage, apples and grated carrot. Fairly generic-American, I suppose. But I remember he talked a lot about Milton.

As I think back to that evening I recall an old house I had walked by near the Kerameikos metro stop. The elements have worn away most but not all of its façade of a grander past. Traces of this past remain, enough anyway to imagine its history. And even when the last remnant of the stucco column decoration crumbles, the arrangement of the front windows, its high ceilings and back courtyard will bear witness to its past. It can never shed its past entirely. It will never become an ordinary building.


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