by Rachel Cann.
In a very nice restaurant in Athens, a distinguished-looking gentleman with a silver mustache interrupted my dinner. The baby, in a plastic carrying seat, had banana all over his eyelashes and the recently renovated lip. Almost half of what went into his mouth dribbled out his nostrils. The man, with fingers as big as cigars, handed me his card: Michael Conminos, Attorney-at-Law. He towered over me, a well-fed-looking fellow, weighing about three times more than I did. “My brother,” he said, in perfect English, “is gynecologist to the queen.”
I wondered which queen he was talking about since I knew Papadopoulos had declared Greece a republic. Shamefully, I knew little about the history of Greece let alone its politics. All those royal names meant very little to me, unless they were on the pages of the National Enquirer, which I occasionally picked up in the supermarket check-out. Everybody in Europe seemed to claim some kind of royal heritage or they had married their third cousin, twice removed, or one or both of their grandmothers was somehow related to Queen Victoria. Multiple marriages, sometimes forced for financial reasons, a dukedom for a parcel of land or a lake.
“You look like you need a break,” he continued. “We’re leaving for Turkey tomorrow and we’d love to have you come along. Why not come to the marina and see if you’re up for it? The owner of the yacht is the third richest woman in the world! I take care of all her legal affairs. She’s my only client. I’ll be there all afternoon. So come.” On the back of his business card he wrote the boat slip number.
I was running out of money and a little sick of living out of a suitcase. I’d just spent a harrowing week on a cruise ship in a cubby just big enough for a German Shepherd and I still hadn’t found my sea legs. The sidewalk insisted on lurching with some inner ear disturbance from all the pitching and rolling and I was starting to miss my boyfriend, Phil. He had a way of keeping me in line, not that I needed it, of course. I think he liked me because I was a little bit prissy. A Manhattan or two before dinner was all I could handle, just enough to make me a little outgoing, a bon vivant. I liked having a good time. He didn’t talk much, but was a good listener. If he knew I was even thinking of going off with some stranger, he would positively plotz. Rich people put their pants on one leg at a time, he’d told me. Those were the best kind to scam. The more money they had, the more they wanted more. Phil was a con man and good at it.
I was intrigued enough to ask advice of a Greek girl I knew from high school. I hadn’t seen her since graduation, but she’d married a manufacturer of paper products and was living in Athens. Bright and early the next morning, I went for a visit. The apartment she lived in was very nice, clean and with lots of white space on the walls. They owned the whole building. We had never been close but the fact that we were both Greek and the majority of the kids in high school Jewish gave us a bond, especially since now we were both mothers. She was a pretty little thing, shining with the glow of good health with olive-black eyes. Very kind and very good.
“Are you crazy?” she asked, when I told her of the invitation. “Those people could throw you off the boat in the middle of the Aegean and who would know? If they’re going to Turkey they could use you to smuggle drugs. If you do decide to go and get arrested or something, I’ll get my husband to call the embassy and tell them you’re an innocent.”
She didn’t know me very well. I had a very dark side. Those tapes recorded in childhood take a lifetime to erase. I’d been good so long, I wanted to do something outrageous like strip naked in the middle of Thessaloniki Square and jump into the fountain. Take lovers on three different continents. How could I ever be a writer, if all I had to write about was my ho-hum life with a dysfunctional family? I could remember very little of my childhood. A certain numbness had set in somewhere around the age of 3; since the baby’s birth it was as if I were on auto-pilot.
In an effort to experience life to the fullest, I went down to the marina to reconnoiter. First I stopped at a restaurant to ask for a bathroom. American or not, I didn’t have the mo-jo to knock at some strange yacht and ask. Plus I wanted to make a good impression with Michael and his friends, not ask for a bathroom right off. Peeing is supposed to be private, but in Piraeus in the nicest restaurant I could find, there was but a pipe in the floor of a smelly room by the kitchen . . . and no door. Waiters carrying trays and plates didn’t even bother to look while I did my business.
The yacht, 35 feet long, more or less, wasn’t particularly fancy compared to the ones I’d seen in Fort Lauderdale on Millionaire’s Mile. But true to his word, Michael Comninos, dressed in a suit and a bow tie, was waiting on the dock to show me around. I was dying to know who the rich woman was, but I knew enough not to be a complete boor so I kept quiet, looked at the tiny table in the galley that folded up against the wall when it wasn’t being used and saw the staterooms with bunk beds and nondescript water colors hanging on the walls. I was expecting a Magritte or two. How did she get so rich? In the master stateroom with a large walk-around bed, standing on a bureau in a silver frame was a picture of Winston Churchill, autographed to: My Dear Sarah.
Now I was getting a little concerned. Churchill’s daughter, Sarah, was frequently in the news for drunken escapades in London and Hollywood. Movie star or not, this was not the kind of company I wanted to keep. Bad enough every gangster worth his salt in Boston knew me. They called me The Schoolteacher. Keeping a low profile was de riguer. Comninos must have sensed my reservations. Lawyers were good at reading faces, just like writers. “Not the actress,” he said. “Not that Sarah. This Sarah is a Lady, married to Theodorus Roubanis, the Greek movie star. Very nice people. There’s a photographer from New York coming and you’ll both have your own cabin. I promise you’ll have fun.”
When he took me into the salon, I noticed a placard above one of the comfortable-looking pink couches. The calligraphy in the cursive inscription read: Greeks do not fight as heroes, heroes fight like Greeks. Winston Churchill, 1941. It filled me with an inordinate pride. I might be from peasant stock, the poorest of the poor, but the Peloponnesus, where my grandmother was born, was famous for its discipline, training soldiers to be unafraid to die. The Spartans inspired fear and respect throughout the Mediterranean world. With all that history and courage clanging around in my head, I completely forgot what happened to Icarus when the wax melted. Seriously, if I had a brain I’d be dangerous. Drowning never crossed my mind and it’s the sailor’s biggest fear.
The clatter above deck announced the arrival of the rest of the troupe: Captain John, wearing the customary black sailor’s cap; the photographer, David, a lean young man in his thirties, carrying packages; Roubanis, the gorgeous, but already married husband I shouldn’t stare at too long; and lastly, Sarah Consuelo Spencer-Churchill, a woman not too pleased to see an infant on board, if I were reading her correctly, which I probably was. Should I? Could I? Would I dare? A free trip to Turkey? There’s nothing I liked better than a bargain. For the clincher, Michael appealed to my altruism. “I thought you might want to help me with a book I’m writing about the differences in dialects on the islands.”
“Okay,” I said, downcasting the eyes so as not to appear too eager. Nobody ever respects you if you come across as easy. This much I had learned. “But I have to tell you, I don’t cook.” When everybody laughed, I knew I was in.
Somehow I already guessed all I’d be required to do in the galley was peel potatoes. Two women in a tiny kitchen would only be trouble. Michael, with his bow tie and hair parted up the middle like Alfalfa, looked too cerebral to be chasing me around for sex. The fashionably thin photographer wasn’t the type to be interested in women, a bit of a Nancy, as it was called back then. He was more feminine than I was if the GQ way he wore a cardigan wrapped around his shoulders and the scent of his cologne were clues. I always have had hips like a boy’s and barely a waist no matter how many sit-ups I did. And the handsome Roubanis, a few years older than I was and much younger than his wife, knew he had a good thing going.
All I had to do to earn my keep was keep the baby from crying, use my head, say something witty every now and then and give the international nomad known as Sarah Churchill a wide, wide berth. Mucking about Europe with society people was something I hoped to tell my grandchildren about, if I lived long enough. Everyone assured me that Captain John was a professional, that they took these trips all the time without incident. Still, when we cast off from the dock and I heard the hydraulics grind, lifting the anchor, I put on a life preserver and didn’t take it off until we reached Santorini.
While the boat was taking on fuel, the others went in search of fresh produce. Michael wanted to do some research in the library but was nice enough to accompany me to the top of a steep hill, a promontory overlooking a village. It was a beautiful bright, sunny day in October and I could hear roosters crowing and see smoke rising, and the blocks of granite that had once been the foundation of a Byzantine castle. From this vantage point, the air was so clean I could see the Aegean sparkle. Crystal clear, blue-turquoise. Breathtaking. The scene was right out of a movie. I felt like Julie Andrews in The Sound of Music, running from corner to corner of what might once have been walls to the great room or maybe a banquet hall in the 11th century. I was practically singing, I was so euphoric. Only the Greeks have a word for this kind of feeling: KEFI.
Michael, so as not to be out-shined by my performance, confessed: “I’m the last living heir to the Byzantine Empire. This castle was probably owned by one of my ancestors in the Middle Ages.”
“No kidding,” I said.
“Sarah and Roubanis have estates in Montego Bay, Greece and Park Avenue.”
“Why does anybody need to live in three different places?”
“I guess they avoid hurricanes that way.”
“How did she become so wealthy?”
“Inherited Vanderbilt money from her grandmother.”
“I once toured the Vanderbilt estate in Newport,” I said. “If you’ve seen one mansion you’ve seen them all.”
“Sarah is royalty in her own right,” Michael continued. “If she hadn’t been a woman she would have become the 11th Duke of Marlborough.”
That night, after dinner, dressed in jeans and sweatshirts, we went to a movie on shore starring Sophia Loren, Carlo Ponti’s masterpiece: Two Women. It was in Italian with sub-titles in Greek and English, about a mother and daughter fleeing Rome in the Second World War. I started sobbing uncontrollably during the rape scene, the horrors of war, of what men did to women when they were unwilling. It was all too much for my system. I couldn’t concentrate on the end of the movie, still a little weepy when we got back to the boat. David, the photographer, tried to cheer me up, recapping Orson Wells’ War of the Worlds in 15 minutes or less. He made a wonderful narrator and I don’t know how he did it so impromptu. Every court has its jester.
The night we threw out anchor in an estuary was special, the kind of night no one forgets. Mountains rising on both sides blotted out the sunset. Not a sound anywhere. Earlier Captain John had caught an octopus and I had watched him pound it with a rubber hammer, tenderizing it for dinner. My tastes were too pedestrian to eat anything with tentacles. Sarah was beginning to warm up to me. She was a tall woman, every inch an aristocrat, even in sneakers. What with the baby requiring all of my personal attention, it was the first time we had been alone, sitting on deck chairs on the stern. The men were below in the salon and I could smell cigar smoke wafting up the open hatch of the companionway. Occasionally their laughter would spill out into the night. My son was asleep with a little smile across his face I recognized as gas. I hoisted him over one shoulder and thumped his back with the palm of my hand till I got results.
“One of my daughters was born with a cleft palate,” said my hostess, for openers.
Having a child born with half a face is every parent’s nightmare. I guess the confession was her way of giving me courage, though I could have used a little more comforting. She had that English stiff-upper lip mentality, not a trace of my own pitiful posture. I was grateful she didn’t offer the usual platitudes, how life was never easy for anyone, how she knew what it felt like to be me.
It was so peaceful just sitting there doing nothing. I was prepared to make small conversation: the latest book I had read, the weather, how much I loved chocolate. I had no accomplishments to shed light upon. As long as she didn’t press, I’d be able to hold my own, talk wise. My intentions were to be discrete. No politics or religion.
On our second bottle of wine, she said: “Tell me about yourself.”
“I’m from Massachusetts.”
Little did I know just mentioning my home state would cause such a virulent reaction. Noblesse oblige be damned! Her voice took on a stridency most unbecoming. “I hate the Kennedys!” she shouted, nearly waking the baby. I rocked and cradled him, quieting his whimpers, while she went on in a similar vein, a little more softly. “I hate them all. When the father, Joe, was ambassador to England, he tried to rape me and my girlfriend in the back of a limousine. Both of us. Can you imagine the cheek, the gall? I never even told my mother. She would only have blamed me for getting into a compromising position.”
Phil, who had been on the lam for some time in California, told me how the Kennedy patriarch had been having an affair with Gloria Swanson with his family living right next door. But Sarah Churchill probably already knew that. I always had a bad habit of interrupting people, but wary of divulging too much, I checked my tendency for taking control of the conversation.
“I was in boarding school when Joe’s plane went down. His sister, Rosemary, was my dearest friend. That son-of-a-bitch father of hers had her committed. There wasn’t a thing wrong with her brain. Maybe she liked the boys a little too much, but that’s no reason to give anyone a lobotomy.”
By now I was itching to tell her about the talk shows I had listened to the night Mary Jo Kopechne drowned in Edgartown. Little old ladies calling up to defend Teddy, saying: “He must have been on his way to mass.” But Sarah was on a roll and I didn’t dare interrupt. I sat there like Mickey the Dunce and listened to her rave. The moon was out and large votive candles on deck gave her face a ruddy glow.
“I was a knock-out when I was young. Had the biggest coming-out party in history, dripping in ermine, just before the war broke out. Everybody who was anybody was there. Very soigné. The champagne literally flowed in rivers. Winston Churchill was there and Anthony Eden. Over 800 guests on the grounds of Blenheim.Castle. My mother was very strict and when I got up to dance with the Maharaja of Jaipur, she didn’t like the way I was dancing too close.” She waved her hands sideways and smiled. “Back then, one had to dance a foot away from the partner.”
“Mothers can be that way,” I said, laughing. “How funny!”
After this reminiscence, she turned very serious, spewing accusations, as if she’d never had a better outlet. “I have no respect for the Kennedys. All they cared about was their reputations. Both of those brothers were responsible for Marilyn Monroe’s death. Marilyn liked to be rescued. She pulled one of those marry-me-or-else suicide attempts because she was in love with John. Instead of taking her to a doctor or an emergency room to pump out her stomach, they drove from Mexico and left her in her own bed to die!”
“Oh, my God! How do you know?”
“I was very close to my grandmother,” she said, resolutely. “She lived on the French Riviera 4 doors away from Marilyn’s maid. On a stipend of forty thousand a year from the Kennedys.”
Okay? I was convinced. Grandmothers are always worried about dying and not going to heaven if they lie. They sit in the sun warming their bones and talk about the good old days. The French Riviera! What kind of maid gets that kind of pension? Maybe she wrote a book and was getting royalties? So much for the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times investigative reporters. They could have uncovered something like this. Maybe. Conspiracy buffs were no doubt stymied and they published books anyway. Maybe just the rumor that the mob was involved scared them. The truth is if you have enough money, you can buy yourself a de facto integrity. I’d rather stick with someone like Phil who always told me he didn’t have two dead flies to rub together. A true craftsman. To me he was worth more than a dozen Wall Street types.
But, wait! Sarah wasn’t done dissing the Kennedys. She leaned forward conspiratorially, faced me eyeball to eyeball and scornfully said: “That Jackie was running around with Aristotle Onassis way before the assassination.”
Who could blame her? That Jack had been boffing anything that moved for years. Everybody knew. Every taxi driver in town. But why was Sarah telling me all this? I started getting a little paranoid. The little hairs on the back of my neck were sending signals to the adrenals. Sometimes people get offed if they knew too much. Maybe they were going to feed me to the fishes? Marilyn Monroe deserved a better exit even if she had been playing a dangerous game pitting one brother against the other. But why had Sarah kept it a secret? She was in a position to hold a press conference, wasn’t she? Maybe she just didn’t want to get involved. That’s the way some people are. Can’t really blame them. Those Mafia tentacles go everywhere. Maybe Giancana was really the responsible one.
I was digesting all this, trying to calm my drumming heart, when the guys came up the companionway. Roubanis with a guitar. Michael, The Professor, as I had started calling him because he always had his nose in a book, was wearing a maroon satin smoking jacket. David looked as if he had been smoking pot. He had a devilish look in his eye. I thought he was beginning to “get” me when he gave me a wink. I hoped we weren’t going to start kumba yah ing or since it was a little more appropriate Sloop John B. I decided to speak up. “Oh, please, please, please play my favorite song. I know you know it.”
ASTA TA MALAKIA SOU is a man’s love song to a woman with tousled hair. He doesn’t want her to cut her wind-blown tresses. Sarah’s hair, tied in the back by a barrette, was beginning to grey around the edges, but she still had the bone structure and complexion of a natural beauty. The song was very apropos. Very sexy. Very nice. Roubanis played a few more songs, leaning on the gunwale, with one tanned bare foot resting on a cooler. In the moonlight after all that wine I was drowsy. I yawned once and excused myself for bed.
In the morning, Sarah complained I was putting too much butter on my toast! The chickens had come home to roost. Maybe butter was hard to get on the islands, maybe she was worried about my arteries gunking up. I was embarrassed and felt like going to my cabin to pout and read. But the order for the day, from the woman they often called The General (behind her back) was for each of us to go out and find an icon. I didn’t know why they wanted one nor did I know it was illegal to take artifacts like icons out of the country. I didn’t even know what icons were worth. I just knew that I’d been on a scavenger hunt in camp, finding bits of paper with clues under stumps and rocks, and it had been a lot of fun. I set out to find one.
A group of young children at the dock greeted me. It was a good thing too that I could speak to them in Greek. YIASOU PEDTHIA! I wanted to meet their teacher, thinking she could give me some advice about teaching English on the island when I retired. I was always thinking of my future, never quite in control of the present. The kids took me by the hand and brought me to their teacher’s house. She was a lovely young woman about my age and quite attractive, anxious to get my perspective about sex. American women, according to the Greeks, were not raised as strictly. Maybe she thought we were all sexual profligates. “Is it normal,” she asked, “for a man to want sex two and three times a day?”
The only thing I could think to tell her was her husband was some kind of animal, that in America, we women didn’t let men rule our lives. Two and three times a day seemed a bit excessive to say the least. I felt so sorry for her. The poor woman was beside herself trying to keep him happy and teach the children every day. “By any chance, my dear girl, do you know of any Jehovah’s Witnesses?” She not only knew who they were, she brought me.
They were very poor. The woman took in laundry for a living. There were no windows in the room, no electric. It was like a cave lit in one corner by a candle. Jehovah’s Witnesses are not supposed to worship graven images. It didn’t take long to make the deal. Later, I would feel guilty, they were so very poor and all I had to give them was two hundred dollars, the last of my travel money. My airline ticket was prepaid. I should have gotten their address and name to send them more when I got home, had I been thinking, but all I had on my mind was pleasing my hostess. How surprised she was going to be. The littlest icon, the woman told me, very apologetically, had been through an earthquake on Volos. The wooden frame was a little mangled. The saint’s name I didn’t know. His head was surrounded by beaten silver. That one I kept for myself. The other two icons were pristine museum pieces, very old and very rare. The largest I gave to the golden couple, Mr. and Mrs. Roubanis, and the other to the photographer, David. What they really needed was an ice bucket.
In the dead of night, what sounded like an explosion woke us. I felt the boat shudder from stem to stern. My first thought was that we’d hit a rock, but that was impossible. We were in the middle of the ocean. Unless we were having an earthquake. BAM BAM BAM loud smacking sounds woke the baby who started to scream. I put him in his little yellow pouch, wrapped it around my waist like a kangaroo mother, so he wouldn’t crash onto the floor. Water was dribbling down the sides of the porthole. Heavy rain and zero visibility. That meant the waves were over 10 feet tall. The rug was already sopping. The boat was being tossed around like a wet tea bag; I could hardly take a step without crashing into a bunk or the wall. It was like being on a roller coaster. Every time the boat reached the top of a wave, I could hear the propellers groan.
At once everyone but the captain mobilized into the salon. David’s face was absolutely white. When the boat lurched to one side we had a few seconds of instability before it pitched to the other, throwing us into a huddle. The picture hanging on the wall swung to and fro, then fell to the floor. Roubanis was wearing hip boots, holding a flashlight. Sarah’s trousers were rolled up to the knees. “We’re in the middle of a typhoon,” she said, visibly shaken but clearly still in command. Her voice cracked with emotion. We could hear the waves crashing over the transom and the howling of a gale-force wind. “Everybody back to your cabins, tie yourselves into your bunks and pray! And don’t come up until I tell you,” she added.
My macho veneer of courage quickly began to erode, trying to stem the flood coming from the portholes of my compartment which were supposed to be water-proof. Towels and blankets and paper diapers lay in a soggy mess. It was no use. The waves kept beating loudly against the fiberglass sides of the boat, over and over. What if the doors and bulkheads had been sealed improperly too? What would prevent the boat from eventually filling and sinking? What if we capsized? The impact of the wallops forced me back to my bunk where I tried to find a foothold, bracing my feet against a wall, protecting the baby’s head with a pillow. I had nothing to tie us down. I didn’t dare get up for a life preserver, the way we were ricocheting. The impact of glancing blows sent jars of applesauce and baby food flying. I felt as if we were all on the brink of death. Bargaining time with God. I never would have sex again. Please God, if you’ll just get us out of this mess, I will serve you forever. The water was creeping in slowly but surely and there was nothing I could do.
After an hour or two of this turbulence, I had to know if we were going to make it. Like a child, I needed reassurance from the captain. Little by little I made my way by holding tight to the guard rails up the companionway to topside. I heard the ship to shore radio squawks and saw the electronic lights flashing on the pilot’s navigational system. Just as I grabbed a handrail at the top of the bridge, a giant swell overwhelmed us on the starboard side. The tip of my elbow connected ever so slightly with the cabin’s glass enclosure and then it crashed. The entire cockpit area was now open to the driving rain and the quartering sea. Only a miracle could save us.
“Go back down,” said Captain John, kindly, as a wall of water enveloped him. “We’re going to make it, I think. I’ll tell her it just happened all on its own.”
In the morning, there was a large piece of plywood covering the empty space. The boat was docked and calm and the sun was out. And of course, rather than lie, I confessed.
BIO: Rachel Cann lives in Boston and delivers food to the needy with a local nonprofit. Over 60 of her stories have been published.
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