I go into the office, to send out an invoice for a magazine article, and to print up a W9 and fax it, in order to get paid for teaching at the Ocean State Writers Conference. In the summer, there’s only one person who is ever in the office besides me, whenever I go in—he’s a professor of Russian literature. The Russianists are down the hall from us in Creative Writing. When I first arrived, I introduced myself to him, and he said, Well, we’ll see how much you use the office.
Hello, Stanley, I say to him. I pause as I turn the key to the Russian lounge, where the spring water Russian and Creative Writing share is in a cooler. I’ve been moving apartments, and sweating intensely. One of the students I hired to help me pointed out the night before that the salt stains on my shirt had made the pattern of a skull. You look like the Punisher, he said.
Later the pattern was a butterfly, we decide. That, I said, approximates this move. And as I walked back to the house, I said to him, I feel like I’m not moving, I said. I feel like I’m having a stuff crisis.
As I entered the house, and plucked at the shirt, I resolved to drink more water, and so here I am, about to drink more water.
How are you, Alex, I haven’t seen you in a while, Stanley says to me. I’ve been in Greece, I say. Greece is incredible, he says. Where? Sifnos, I say. I went with Daniel Hall and Pengyew Chin, I say, mentioning the names of people I was with that he’ll know.
I don’t know Sifnos, he says. I know Greece, though. Marvelous country. I know they go. How was it? Was it expensive, with the Euro?
Well, I say. I had an efficiency, about twice as large as your office, I say, meaning it to be descriptive. He tilts his head up, as if he sees it. Bougainvillea, mimosa and caperberry blossoms on the patio. A view of the town we were in and the mountains, and the sea. 60 Euros a night.
Sheesh, he says. Why are you here? He makes a wave of his hand towards me. I’m being facetious, he says. But really.
On vacation in Sifnos, after a day of riding the bus and watching people drive by on scooters, I rent a Honda motorbike, a scooter. On the first day, the first model they rent me is too slow. I turn it in after a few hours of being passed on the road for an upgrade. Sure, sure, the couple who runs the place tells me. The man who runs the place, I later learn, is the island’s leading environmentalist. 20 kmh is the speed limit in the towns, he tells me. 40 on the rest. Okay?
I need the speed for the hills and wind, I say, lying a little bit.
I spend the next week driving everywhere. Boring churches where I turn around in the driveway or breathtaking coves, where the blue in the water is like a struck chime and you just want to throw yourself into it, not because it’s the ocean, exactly, but because it’s beautiful and you want to be in it. Sometimes it is beautiful water and churches together. In one church I watch as the solemn attendant gets up and blows out the candles in the shrine, placed there by the faithful to burn as a request along with the prayer. He pulls them out of the sand in the shrine, putting them back in the stacks, where they can be pulled by the newly arrived for a Euro or two, and burned again, until they leave and it burns on, only in their minds.
I decide he’s a swindler, at first, and then later, ingenious.
The island is covered in churches people built after asking for prosperity of some kind and getting it–chapels that began as those lit candles and their prayers. There’s no congregation to most of them, just a chapel with shrines. I don’t understand how they’re used, if they’re used at all. There’s more chapels here than hotels, for example. We come up with a Greek drinking game of drinking when you see a church but there’s too many for it to be an interesting game.
One day, a dove lands on the cross at the top of a chapel near where my friends and I are having drinks. I just find that so picturesque, my friend Sabina says. But it happens all the time. I try to take a picture of it, and it never looks the right way. She shrugs.
The dove stays, as if it knows.
The picturesque, it turns out, is a problem. The pictures I try to take of the landscape seem to me to make everything small and dull. So I begin drawing. I start in Platygialos, a beach town, after a lunch and beer. I move on to Cheronissos, a truly stunning beach town on the island’s north side, much smaller and with a long odd cove that leads to the beach. These drawings are all right, it seems to me. They are more how I feel than the pictures. And so I go every morning to a new beach town and have an omelet and coffee, and then a beer at lunch, and draw. I swim in the afternoon back at Platygialos, have another beer or two with my friends. I get a splinter in my left big toe and then cut my right big toe, and it’s suggested there’s a curse on my feet. The rest of me is lucky, though, I say.
I do this for a week.
At night we have dinners out or we cook. I don’t really cook, though I normally do. I buy groceries and lose interest in them almost immediately. I want to eat the food other people make here, mostly, or to just have espresso and a Greek yogurt. I discover an amazing taverna, Capitan Sifnakis, in Seralia, a cove to the right of a Venetian settlement called Kastro: the capitan goes out every morning and fishes, and his wife grills what you choose of it and serves it with the help of their two handsome sons. When I first find them, I get excited—I want to make a drawing of the cliffs, but also just to sit there and watch the water pound in. I feel like I’ve walked inside Jeanette Winterson’s Lighthousekeeping, a little.
I show the woman in Capitan Sifnakis my wallet, as my Greek is as good as her English. I have 15 Euros with me today, I say. What can I get?
We pick out a sea bream, a Mythos beer is agreed on. Some salad. I get a starter of a hard aged goat cheese none of my friends have been served here yet, pickled octopus, cucumber, and olives, in olive oil. The salad, with the fish, has the tomatoes and olives, cucumbers, olive oil. Also the local oregano, which is mild, and the local sage, which is powerful.
I make the drawing and stay there for hours. She charges me just 10 Euros.
10 Euros! my friend Sabina shouts at me. Incredible. We have to go. What is it about you? My feet are cursed but I get discounts, she decides.
I come back the next day, make another drawing, and spend twice as much on a Skari, a fish that you can only get there, grilled and served doused in olive oil that’s poured on at the table, and two beers. It’s closer to the right amount of money, but still very cheap. I decide I like getting the whole fish because you get the cheek meat, which you wouldn’t otherwise get in a fillet.
This drawing is three times the size of the one before, of the profile of the cliff town of Kastro. When I leave, I walk up the hill to make another one, of something called the Mermaid chapel. A few nights before, we went to dinner at the home of old friends of my friends, former diplomats who seem actually to be still very current as diplomats, and who live in a beautiful small house in Kastro on the cliff’s edge. Looking at the water from there, I had the thought that it seemed like you’d be able to see mermaids. Drawing the chapel seems to do something for that feeling.
As I finish it, I add the two kestrels I see blowing around. I think about putting in one of the cats I see all over here, skinny cats like arrows in the grass. One of them is prowling the cliff’s edge. But I remember something someone said to me once, about how you can’t put cats in drawings, because it throws the whole thing off, by them being cute.
When I tell Sabina about it, she calls me Gustave Courbet.
[To Be Continued]