Street in Panormos, Tinos
Vignettes

Broken Vows

A gust of wind lifts up our bread basket and tosses it onto the pavement. Exei kairo, the locals say on days like this, when the dry northerly wind that whips down the Aegean Sea in late August keeps the fishing caiques moored at port and locals away from the sand-swept beaches. “There’s weather today,” as if the wind is the only meteorological phenomenon worth the name.  Ty told me that he and his cousins had a scale of their own when they were kids; the rungs of the scale were named for the heaviest object the wind would overturn—kareklatos for winds that overturn chairs, trapezatos when a table is upended. I wonder if there was one for a loaf of bread.

We’ve found a table at a modest taverna near the marina and wait for Ty, who’s gone looking for an ATM to withdraw the little cash he’s entitled to under the new regime of capital controls. In the meantime the boys are competing for my vote on what to do after dinner, a horse-and-carriage ride or a pedal-driven wagon for four. Neither seems like a good idea with the port traffic, swollen this evening by the last wave of pilgrims who are making their way to the pier for the ferry that will take them back to the city. Thousands come each year on the Feast of the Assumption to fulfill a vow, some making their way up the street to the Church of the Virgin Mary on their hands and knees. I’ve come instead to spend a few days with Ty and Alicia and their nine-year-old twins.

Ty arrives ten minutes later. “The first machine wasn’t working. Or maybe it ran out of cash. Let’s hope it’s a coincidence.”

“I still can’t get used to the idea that I can’t get to the money in my bank account. It feels like I’ve been locked out of my house,” I say.

“And someone else is living in it,” Ty says.

“Do I have a bank account?” Lukas asks.

“No. But you have stocks,” his mother says. “Your grandmother gave them to you and Harry when you were born.”

“What are stocks?” he asks.

“It means you own a small part of the company,” I jump in to explain. It’s a role I’m comfortable with, the teacher, a job I once had and loved, and the one I suspect I should be doing. The truth is, I enjoy talking with Lukas. He’s a bright, sensitive kid, with the enthusiast’s passion for discovery for the things that have piqued his curiosity—whether physics or Star Wars or the boats that ply the harbor—and barely concealed indifference for anything else.

I try to think whether there’s an analogy to raising capital in video games but find none and resort instead to the idea of a ferry company that wants to expand its fleet. I explain it as simply as I can but I’m not sure it makes much sense to him.

“How much do I have?”

His mother tells him. It’s a modest sum, about what his teacher at school might make in a month, but for a boy his age, I’ve discovered, money, like time, has very different orders of magnitude. Next month is the distant future and a thousand euros a fortune.

“Wow! Can I sell them back?”

“Well, you could sell your shares to someone else who wants a part of the company,” I say, “But why would you want to?”

He rattles off a list of Star War Lego kits and PlayStation games he’d use the money for.

“But it you sell it all, you won’t have any left over for later.”

“I don’t care.”

“Think about how you’ll feel when you grow up and want to come to the island with your girlfriend—“ I stop for a moment when I catch myself saying girlfriend and then add “or some friends from school, and you don’t have any money to rent a house to stay at.”

I scold myself for not saying “or boyfriend”, even though I haven’t talked to Ty and Alicia yet about how we’ll tell the kids I’m gay. There are much better ways for me to come out to them than slipping in a gay boyfriend in a story. Still, I felt inauthentic in a way I haven’t since freshman year in college, the last time, as best I can remember, that I switched pronouns in a story. It feels crappy, this visitation of an awkward, dissimulating former self, the teenage boy standing beside his date for the junior prom, concealing, with a smile as borrowed and ill-fitting as his rented brown-velvet tux, thoughts of the boy he wished could have been his date.

In retrospect it was a ridiculous example in the first place. The idea of renting a vacation house in the first place—with a girlfriend or a boyfriend—isn’t a relevant thought experiment for a nine-year-old. That said, romance is a far more familiar concept to Lukas than stocks and bonds. From Ratatouille to the video games he plays, straight romantic relationships are a standard part of the story. It’s the rare game where players will encounter same-sex romance, and none of the young reader’s detective novels I’ve given the boys for summer reading will have a gay character. Whatever the relevance of the vacation rental, it feels like a missed opportunity. How do we arrive at a society in which the gender of one’s romantic interests no longer matters when we erase the possibility of same-sex relationships from such a simple story? I promise myself to talk to Ty and Alicia about this when we all get back to the city.

The waiter arrives with our order, red mullet and a salad of rocket and grape tomatoes for the grown-ups, for Harry, spaghetti and for Lukas, youvarlakia, boiled balls of rice and ground beef in an egg-and-lemon sauce. “He likes hospital food,” Alicia once told me, and this is his favorite.

I would know this simply by the way he eats it, how he’ll devour the first half,  spoonful after spoonful in rapid succession, and then push the remaining roulettes into a mound on the side of the plate. This he’ll leave untouched until he scrapes up all the stray grains of rice and specks of ground beef left on the other side of the plate. It’s an intriguing interplay of immediate and delayed gratification that reminds me of the way I sometimes draw out the pleasure of a favorite meal, though I do so with salad and sides, neither of which tempt Lukas.

“How are the youvarlakia?” I ask him.

“They’re ok.”

“How so?” I ask. The teacher again. I glance at Harry and wonder if he’s bothered by the attention I’m giving his brother, if he feels I’m being disloyal to the bond we have as godfather and godson. I’ve learned, however, that Harry never says much when he’s eating.

“They’re too hard,” Lukas says. “I like it when they’re a little squishy. But the sauce is good.” He pauses for a moment and adds, “You can taste the lemon just enough. And it’s kind of soupy, which I like.” A sign the cook foreswore the cornstarch which other, less conscientious restaurants use to thicken the sauce.

“That’s a pretty smart review,” I say. “You’d make a good restaurant critic. Like Anton Ego in Ratatouille. And then, imagine you’d get paid for eating out! Though you’d probably have to start eating lots of different things. Not just ground beef.”

He frowns. “No, not like him,” he says, in a tone that suggests he finds the cartoon food critic creepy. I can understand his aversion; there is something ghoulish about the acerbic, limp-wristed Anton Ego—the long spindly fingers, the black rings around the eyes, the deathly pallor and hunched back. You cannot imagine this painfully thin man actually eating anything, much less relishing it.

The only alternative to Anton I can think of at the moment is Julia Roberts in My Best Friend’s Wedding, and I doubt if Lukas has seen the movie.  I make a mental note to look up ‘food critics in movies’ once I’m back home. Maybe I can rent him a DVD with a more sympathetic reviewer than Anton.

As I write this I remember Anton’s precedents in earlier films: the arrogant theatre critic Addison DeWitt in All about Eve and the brilliant but misanthropic columnist Waldo Lydecker in Laura. As a young teenager watching these movies on my parents’ cable TV, I found the characters equally creepy, though for a quite different reason. Despite their cinematic attachment to women, DeWitt and Lydecker were, I realized later, manifestations of the Hollywood trope of the effete homosexual, which for many years was one of the few ways in which gay men were depicted. Though intrigued by their sophistication and wit, I was struck by the loneliness of these sour, unhappy men, and knew that I never wanted to become one of them.

It was only years later, as I came out in the summer after graduating high school, could I envision a different and far happier future for myself, a life in which, as I was learning, the love for another man would be a source of joy and evidence of the divine. I’m not sure there was ever a single moment of decision in which I swore I would never betray my sexuality, much less made an oath to a deity, but since coming out I’ve lived my life as if there were one.

Until now and the story I tell Lukas about his return to the island. It feels as if I’ve come to this place of winds that upturn chairs and loaves of bread not having fulfilled a vow but having broken one. But the winds die down in September, and there is time enough for different stories to tell.

-/-

Although this text, like others on Breach of Close, can be read as memoir, I’ve changed the names of its characters. I hope Lukas, if he reads this years later, perhaps when he’s old enough to rent a summer house on his own, will forgive me this change in identity. I tried to find a name he would have liked. His favorite Star Wars character Grievous—Lukas even dressed up as the Jedi hunter for Halloween—was, for obvious reasons, out of the question and I opted instead for the protagonist of the original film trilogy. Luke Skywalker also happens to be a twin brother.

Featured image: Street in Panormos, Tinos. Author’s photograph.

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