Penelope

Dear Professor,

Your maintenance request has now been completed.

If you have any further problems please email maintenance@calvin.com or telephone

01865 276039 quoting reference number 00064673.

Maintenance Department,

Calvin College

*

Having only arrived here a few days ago, I feel I’ve already been inducted into the monasticism of the all-inclusive hotel. There’s something cloistered about this place that sets the outside world at a distance, that makes it recede like a memory of childhood Sundays. It’s easy to fall into a routine, or at least it is for me. There’s something faintly collegiate about life here: the isolation, the set hours, the constant sense of quiet activity. My welcome pack told me that breakfast is served at seven and, maintaining my usual standards of punctuality, I was the first there.

‘You’re early!’ said the waiter.

‘No,’ I replied ‘just on time.’

He smiled at the strange humour of this foreign lady and led me to a table on the veranda; it was in the corner which meant that I could watch the place fill up.

Breakfast is an interesting phenomenon. The British, my natural allies, queue habitually and chatter about the tepid temperature of the tea or the lukewarm temperature of the milk. The Dutch speak in accented English to make their allegiance clear. The Russians, having already claimed the best sun-loungers to form an eastern bloc around the pool, proceed to push tables, drag chairs and pile plates high with several courses. As a people hardened to blighted harvests and artificial famines, I find it in my heart to forgive them. That is, I would if they didn’t persist in feeding it all to the cats. They seem to be more numerous here than the islanders — the cats that is, and the Russians too for that matter.

I’ve yet to encounter any of my compatriots, much to my relief. Though I didn’t come here to get away from Americans; I came here to get away from Andy.

The email dropped into my inbox last Wednesday, which was when I realised that this time he’d actually meant it. I’d just got back to my office from a lecture theatre across campus and was checking my emails. There were the usual departmental circulars, invitations to speak at conferences and students letting me know their translations would be late. I almost deleted it, buried as it was among the usual flurry of hate-mail that accompanies any form of public speaking these days. Do they sit there composing it instead of taking notes? Smiling and nodding while they tap away at their vitriol? In the days of notebooks there was only so much they could get away with: doodling, passing notes, the occasional, furtive game of hangman. It all seems to quaint, so innocent. The worst they could do then was carve ‘Bitch’ into the desk; some of them even managed to do it in Greek.

It was there among them (…The trans-exclusionary discourse of the critic you cited…), the dark blue dot of an unread message; the final full stop on our relationship.

I didn’t open it. I’d never received a reply before, which told me everything I needed to know. Instead, to confirm, I sat completely still and listened for the usual rattles and clunks to come from my radiator. They didn’t. For my entire career the thing has sat discontentedly in the corner of the room, waiting to scold the smallest bit of exposed flesh and sinking into a long hibernation in winter. Suddenly the sound of birds in the trees outside, the workmen on the street and the drawl of a student megaphone in the quad seemed somehow hollow, empty.

That’s why I left.

*

My room is a supposedly a sea-view, but one has to lean over the balcony to glimpse it. Instead, it faces the block of newly built villas next door and the road which runs down to the beach. Not the hotel beach, which is for private use only and made of imported sand, but the thin seam of volcanic rubble that the locals call their beach. All night there are headlights going up and down it; the sound of music playing from car radios and whooping, shouts and laughter. The young people begin to come as the sun goes down and this morning, on my walk, I discovered why: dust covered condoms were strewn among the pebbles and in the high-tide line, floating in the foam and washed up on the shore. Before I saw them I was just getting used to the voluptuousness of life here: air conditioning, crisp sheets and the waxy feel of fresh fruit. It was their laughter that brought me out of my stupor.

When had I last felt like that?

I mentioned the beach to the waiter when I got back for lunch, but he said ‘Beech not for guests, madam…we have very nice beech on sight.’

The waiter behind him smiled. He was younger than the one I was speaking to, younger by far. His face was long and his cheekbones high, quite unlike the moonfaced buffoon now slopping porridge into my bowl. In fact, he bore a distinct resemblance to a young Andy. I fixed him with the look I give my students, only a moment too late. His mask had slipped only for a second. The badge he wore read ‘Yannis’.

*

We first met at my welcome party. I was just down from Oxford and secretly, deeply unhappy about my repatriation. A junior academic with Ivy League aspirations, I was biding my time at a small, mid-western college with a clap-board chapel and a puritanical curriculum. In retreat from cheap wine and cheese boards, I stepped out into the dark corridor and bumped straight into him. Tan-skinned and dark-haired, his full name was Andreas Eugenides and he was not like my new academic colleagues (tweed suits, elbow patches). There was a passion and ambition in him which was palpable in the way he talked, the way he held himself. A vitality and — was it? Yes, a roguish glitter in his eye. I invited him to see my new office and that was the first time it happened.

We fell in love. What else was there to do?

He’d wanted to go to college, he told me, but the grandparents who raised him couldn’t afford tuition. The spouses of staff get discounts, I told him. In private I imagined him taking me home to meet his yia yia and getting married in the Orthodox liturgy. Surely his family would be impressed with a daughter-in-law who knew the language. Or could read Homer, at least.

Then came the inevitable arguments: ‘You’re a professor and I’m a janitor…you’re a rich white girl and I’m a poor Greek…what will people think when they see us?’

‘A junior professor…a junior professor’ I shouted, stamping my foot. I don’t know why, it seems ridiculous now.

In the end there were always slammed doors, broken crockery and me, for all my feminism and my newly minted PhD, crying like a sixteen year old on the bathroom floor.

He brought flowers. We made up.

Then there was Sophia: air-headed Greek girl from a good family, who should have been thrown from the cliffs at birth. Simpering and silly, she pleaded innocence and infatuation to snare him.

‘It’s what my grandparents want…they want me to marry an Orthodox girl…they need me to settle down…’

Another week of ringing in sick, of tear-choked pleading down the phone and my hair, like a storm-tossed sea wrack, falling out by the fistful.

But still he came back and still I forgave him.

So it went on. Long, too long — we did not notice the years passing by. For him: a wife, a house, three children — a simple metric of maturation and gain. For me: stagnation, a failure to move on (emotionally and academically) and all of my brilliance and early promise frittered on a man who did not love me.

*

Tonight I went down to the locals’ beach. The smoke of disposable barbecues made it seem like the volcanic rubble was newly settled and the revellers were blissfully unaware, singing and dancing as ash rained and their city burned promethean fire. In lieu of sand dunes, lovers lay tangled and spent out in the open, faces daubed with soot like penitents on Ash Wednesday. Boys with salt-tipped eyelashes and sunburnt shoulders; girls with long, tanned legs and purple love-bites on their necks.

A few fell silent as I shed my dress and stepped out into the crashing surf. Swimming out, I imagined myself emerging from the waves like Aphrodite, rejuvenated and ravishing, not the stout, middle-aged woman — capped and goggled — that I am.

But I suppose I don’t need to think about such things any more.

Back on shore, an old Toyota came ambling down the dirt track that passes beneath my balcony, dipping over potholes and sending dust clouds billowing up into the air. The boys in it had the windows down and were shouting to their friends already on the beach. One of them, I realised, was Yannis. At first I thought he might ignore me, but when he saw me he shouted ‘Yia Yia!’ and opened his arms wide.

I admired his nerve.

They pulled me up a chair and gave me a beer. Most of them spoke English and they were charming, clever, hungry for life in the way only the young can be. They cooked food over a fire and made me spit with laughter at their jokes. Only walking back to the hotel at dawn did I realise how much time had passed.

*

It was my idea, ‘maintenance service request’. I thought it was funny.

Sometimes he was silent afterwards; other times we would talk quietly in the dark on my office floor. Often he would tell me that this was the last time: he could not do this to me, to Sophia. When he was in good spirits though, we could laugh like we had at the beginning — rare, but it still happened.

‘You really need to get that radiator fixed…’ He would say, as the clanking reached a crescendo.

‘Yeah,’ I said, ‘I should call someone out to have a look at that…’

Once, recently, he had put his overalls back on and stooped to look it over.

‘What are you doing?’ I asked, rounding on him ‘Don’t fix it! What excuse will you have?’ ‘But I could

just bleed it —

Bleeding, my speciality: trojan warriors, demigods, virgins (vestal) — blood-slick cerements, wild eyes rolling like a slain quarry and the roseate glow of blood-rusted marble that has survived the centuries.

I should’ve known he was saying goodbye.

Since coming to this island he comes to me nightly, though he isn’t a ghost; he’s not even dead. Nevertheless, borne on the wind, he is young again and the stars shine through his transparent form. His is the voice that whispers through my dreams, like the wind through an aeolian harp, like the crashing sound of the surf.

‘Penelope…Penelope…’

Not a name — nor a life — I would have chosen for myself, though I wouldn’t want anything grand. No Olympian, no Athena or Artemis; a lesser divinity, Circe or Medea perhaps. Alas, I got Penelope, whose only power is patience. Who walks the shore, back and forth, and watches every passing ship that skirts her small horizon, praying that each one is the one that will bring Odysseus back. It’s impressive, noble in its way, though I wonder if she ever thought of giving in? If she ever longed to cast off and out, to leave with the tide and lose sight of land; to risk never finding her way home again, and chase the sun down to its setting…