Only Ruins

By John M. Radosta

e wandered through Athens, four college students knowing only that Syntagma Square was behind us. Dawn hadn’t arrived, and at this point, we didn’t even have a hotel room. We wound our way behind the National Garden until we passed a series of columns that rose from the emptiness of another park.

“God,” I said. “My first ruins. I wonder what they are.”

Nick said, “Get the Let’s Go out, and look it up.” But it had been the first thing I packed, and excavating it now would take too much time. Later, I learned we’d been looking at the Temple of Olympian Zeus, but for now, all that mattered was that they were ruins.

I rattled the black iron fence. “You think I could squeeze in?” I tried to force my shoulder through the narrow opening.

Liz brushed Nick’s arm. “Looking at those pillars makes me want to squeeze something.”

“Sick,” Stacey muttered.

I clenched my fists on the wrought iron and dropped my head. Why did Liz have to choose him?

“Come on,” said Nick. He had to bend a little to look me in the eye. His ruddy Texan face all smiles. “Who knows what else there is? This could be nothing.”

“Does anyone know where to go?” Stacey said. It came out as a plea.

“Follow the moon,” Liz said, pointing to the waning light that hung over a dark hill. I hitched up my pack, lingering an extra second to see the shadows of the temple, black on the luminescent grass.

***

We were Americans studying at Oxford through a semester-long exchange program. It started out as fun, but the pubs closed early, and our room was unheated. When the rain turned to sleet, my roommate Nick and I decided Greece was the place to be. He bought a poster showing a white beach slipping into water too blue to be real, and I got a copy of Let’s Go: Greece. Bouzouki music engulfed our part of the house. Bitter beer gave way to Ouzo, and I tried stuffing grape leaves for dinner.

Thirty of us lived in that semi-detached house, but only Liz ventured into our room. I thought her boldness would lead me out of the library. Nick thought she would be the perfect date at his inevitable Oscars ceremony. I plied her with drink and poetry, he regaled her with backstage stories. She pretended to like both.

Two weeks—a fortnight, we were saying—before the mid-term holiday, I put a bouzouki tape in my little player. Accompanied by the tinny music, Nick lay on his bed reciting lines from Fagles’ Aeschylus, with just the slightest slur. When he finished his oration Liz shouted “Now can I come in?”

He opened the door. I leaned back in my chair, a glass of milky Ouzo balanced in my palm.

“Who the hell are you? Kenneth Branaugh?” she said. “Anyone can sound reasonably intelligent in English. Try it in the original.” She sat on Nick’s desk, and reached for the Ouzo. Her long red hair caught the fluorescent light as she bent over. When she placed her booted foot up on the desk, her short black skirt slipped back to show a black fishnet thigh. Ouzo spilled on my hand.

“So, like I should even ask you guys,” she said, looking around the room. “Where should I go for mid-term?” She poured a generous dollop into an empty, though not necessarily clean, glass.

“Kali tihi!” I yelled, holding up my glass.

“What?”

“It means ‘Good luck,’ ” Nick said. “It was the closest we could find to a toast in his little phrase book.”

“You guys are so weird.”

“Come with us,” I said. “Look at that beach. We’re going to find it if it kills us.”

“It’s probably a topless beach,” she said. “I’m not stripping for you. Where else should I go?”

“Germany is nice this time of year,” Nick said. “Though it is getting cold.”

I said, “Why not be warm?” What I meant was, warm next to me.

“You have a point,” she said. “Anyone else going?”

“No,” I said. “You’re the only one ever to come here to Little Athens.”

“I’m the only one with any guts. The rest of the house thinks you’re devil worshipers. Really, I can go?”

“Anyone can,” said Nick. “Except Stacey.”

She turned to me. “I thought you were friends.”

“Yeah, until I found out she thought requiems were happy music.”

“She wouldn’t go anyhow,” Nick said. He picked up his book again. “She wouldn’t be as willing as you are to hit that topless beach.”

“Bite me,” Liz said, slamming first her empty glass on the desk, then the door.

“That topless beach sounds damn good,” Nick said, looking at the poster.

I refilled the two glasses. “You think she’d go for me?”

Nick smirked. “Kali tihi!”

***

We left the National Garden behind and followed Kidathineon Street. Every few feet, Stacey stopped to swing her two suitcases a few more feet forward.

“Need some help?” I said.

“Thanks.” She handed me the larger one and we started walking. The suitcase kept banging my knee.

“Look at her,” Stacey said after a few seconds. Liz had her hand on Nick’s shoulder. “She’s so crass. God knows what she has planned for him.”

“It’s the last thing I care about,” I said.

“She doesn’t have to act like that to get attention,” Stacey said. “She’s as smart as anyone else here. I met her on the bus from Heathrow when we first landed. She had a decent outfit on, too.”

“That’s nice,” I said.

“I just hate to see people trying to be something they’re not,” she continued. “Don’t you?” Her emphasis on the last word suggested she meant me, not Liz.

The others had stopped to let us catch up. As we got closer, Nick said, “Don’t think we wanted to wait for y’all. It’s the guide book we’re after.”

“Admit it,” I said. “You just couldn’t bear to be away from me for more than a minute.”

“Let’s head for that hill over there,” he said. “We can watch the sun come up.”

Liz took Nick’s arm. “Let’s keep wandering.”

“I’m with her,” I said, automatically agreeing with anything Liz suggested. But I was also aware of Stacey’s weary grimace. “Besides, I don’t want to go rummaging through my bag.”

“All right,” said Nick, “just don’t lead us into some Grecian ghetto.” We started and Stacey immediately fell behind again. Nick grabbed me and we walked ahead to put Liz between us and the baggage queen. “What were you two talking about?”

“Not much,” I answered. “You know, I think this is going to work out fine.”

***

“Come on,” said Liz. “What’s taking you? We’ve gotta hurry if we’re going to get the tickets before tutorial.”

My bike lock was playing games. Liz and Nick left me huddled in the rain as I fumbled with the combination. Stacey, hair pulled back and wearing a no-nonsense sweater, appeared and unlocked her bike.

“Hi,” she said. “You’re in a rush.”

“Yeah, but this damn lock wrongs me at every turn.”

She laughed.

“You like puns, huh? I used to think I’d be chained up if I spoke too many of them.”

She laughed again, but now it lurched out of her throat, like a car stuck in first gear. “Where are you going?” she asked.

“Down to the High Street.”

“What’s there?”

I wondered if she noticed my hesitation. “Nick and Liz. We have a few errands to run.”

My lock finally gave way, but not soon enough to avoid hearing her say, “Are you going away for the break?”

“Yeah, are you?”

“Where?”

I didn’t miss that she’d ignored my question, but she’d backed me into a corner. “Greece. The three of us are going.”

“Oh. I see them together a lot. They’re letting you tag along?”

“Nick and I have been planning it for weeks.”

Her head gave a half twitch. “That should be interesting.”

“Are you going anywhere?” I repeated.

“I’m going to Greece, too,” she said. “I was just going down to buy my ticket. I’ll ride to the High Street with you.”

When Stacey and I walked into the travel agency, Liz’s eyes opened wide. Nick was sitting at the desk, chatting up the pretty clerk and didn’t notice us.

“Hey, guys, guess what?” I croaked. “Turns out Stacey planned a Greek trip all by herself. What a coincidence, huh?”

Liz put her credit card away. Nick didn’t answer the clerk’s imitation of his Texas drawl.

Stacey smiled. “If you guys are still deciding, can I go ahead of you?”

They dragged me to the other side of the room and I heard Stacey say, “I want to go to Greece next week. What kind of fares can I get? Are there any student discounts available? I’m also a member of AAA. Will that get me anything over here?” Even the agent saw that Stacey was horning in on us. She stopped smiling and punched Stacey’s information into the computer without a word.

Nick shoved me behind a rack of wilting brochures. “What the hell are you doing?” he hissed.

“Nothing. You don’t think I invited her, do you?”

“Say good-bye to that topless beach,” Liz told me. “I’m not going anywhere with her.”

“Look at her,” said Nick. “Y’all know how Greeks are about blondes? They’ll kidnap her.”

“Well, we didn’t invite her, so it’s not our responsibility,” I said.

“Get real,” Liz said. “You’re the only one in the house who’s ever been cordial to her. Of course she’s going to go with you.”

“I’m not interested in her,” I said. At least, not when there was still a chance with Liz. But if there wasn’t a chance…

“Doesn’t matter,” she said. “I won’t spend my vacation listening to her pass judgment on my life.”

“Wait a minute,” I said. “You can’t make me spend the whole time with her by myself.”

“Might be the best thing for you,” Liz said.

“I’m all set,” Stacey said, joining us. “Have you decided what you’re doing?”

I glared at my friends until Nick gave in.

“Come on,” he said, his enthusiasm deflated.

“I’d wait for you guys,” Stacey said, standing by the door. “But I have to run some errands. I wonder if I can get any suntan lotion around here?” She opened the door to the rainy High Street and left. The autumn chill lingered behind her.

***

As soon as we’d left London airspace, I dug in my carry-on for the phrase book. I was certain the travel agent had known what we had been talking about while Stacey bought her ticket, because my seat was right next to hers, while Nick and Liz sat three rows back on the other side of the plane. I was whispering the pronunciations, and Stacey asked why I bothered. “They’ll all speak English,” she told me.

“Why should they?”

“Because,” she said as patiently as a parent explaining bedtime to a child. “It’s in their best interest. If they expect me to spend my money, they’d better speak the international language of business.”

“I see,” I said.

“Besides,” she said. “I’ll have you to speak for me.”

“Hmm,” I answered, looking in his phrase book. “Katalaveno,” I said. “I understand.” Nick and Liz laughed out loud across the aisle. At least Stacey didn’t hide her feelings. That kind of honesty was attractive. I looked through the window, trying to catch a glimpse of a boat or a hint of the European coast. Despite the brilliance of the stars, not even the ocean was visible.

***

At the intersection where Kidathineon Street crossed Adrianou and became Thespidos, I put my pack over both my shoulders and took Stacey’s other bag. By now, we were two distinct pairs, more than a block apart, and I was happy with how things had worked out. In the shadows, I saw the blazing eyes of cats slipping around fence posts and under cars. We passed a bakery, the warm smell of coarse bread billowing from the dark storefront. A dim shaft of light passed from the back room to the sidewalk. As Stacey walked through it, her hair lit up with the gold of wheat at harvest time.

“I still think you could have packed all you needed in one small bag,” I said.

“I like to look my best,” she said. “Besides, it’s cute watching you struggle like that.”

“Were you thinking that while you were packing?”

“It crossed my mind. Are you sure you don’t want me to take your backpack?”

“If I’m going to impress you, I might as well do it right.” She squeezed my arm. “Watch it,” I said. “If you distract me, I’m liable to drop these and splatter your clothes all over the sidewalk.”

“That would ruin the surprise,” she said. I smiled. How did she know this would happen?

Up ahead, Nick and Liz stood on a corner, waiting for us again. They made a good couple. Everything was falling into place perfectly. I playfully clunked one of Stacey’s bags against Nick’s knee. He was about to retaliate when I dropped the bags, right there in the middle of the street.

“What?” Nick said, but I had no answer.

The Parthenon floated above us, bathed in the milky glow of the moon. The white marble of the pillars stood in sharp relief to the darkness within it. Next to the central temple stood a smaller one, near the edge of the hill, with the same ancient dignity.

“That’s it,” I said, choking the words out.

“Don’t cry,” said Stacey. “They’re only ruins.”

I could take the requiems, I could take the strange theories on international relations. This was unforgivable. She reminded me of Emerson’s complaints about a man who travels for the wrong reasons: “He carries ruins to ruins.”

Nick grabbed my arm. “Let’s go.”

Forgetting the weight of our packs and our companions, we dashed across the street to the dilapidated Theater of Dionysus, then found the marble pathway that led to the top. After slipping twice on the icy-smooth steps, I switched to the rough ground and bounded up, dodging olive trees and boulders, to the turn where Nick was catching his breath. “I had to wait for you,” he panted. “We have to do it together.”

The rest of the path was a straight shot to the gate. Above us, against the slight brightening of the eastern sky, the jagged line of the temple’s pediment was barely visible. We came to a tiny guard house where a sleepy old man read a paperback novel.

“Stop,” he said. “No more.” How did he know we were Americans? Or maybe Stacey was right, but I wasn’t willing to credit her, not now.

“We need to see the Parthenon,” Nick said.

“No. Later.”

“Can’t we just look through the gate?” I said.

“No. Later.”

Nick winced and bent over. I felt a cramp coming on, too.

“Sit down,” I said. “We’ll figure something out.”

“Beautiful, isn’t it?” said Nick, massaging his side.

“Unbelievable. Imagine, you and me at the Acropolis, about to watch the sunrise.”

“Wish we had some Ouzo to celebrate.”

“Too bad,” I said. “And neither of them will appreciate what this is.”

“Screw ’em.”

I sat next to him. “Yeah,” I said. “Screw ’em.”

By the time Liz and Stacey joined us, Nick and I had regained our breath and paced across the path like the cats that wandered the streets below.

“Why don’t you go up?” Liz said.

“They won’t let us. There’s a cop there,” I told her.

“You rushed up here for this?” said Stacey.

I looked away from her.

Liz embraced me and Nick. “You looked like a pair of ancient marathoners running up here. It’s kind of sexy.”

I returned her hug, but she was kissing Nick. I let myself out of her arms, and Nick closed the gap immediately.

Stacey sat with her eyes closed, leaning against one suitcase, the other on her lap. She was muttering something I couldn’t make out. Twice she banged the back of her head against the suitcase. She looked as though she’d lost a race she’d been winning until the last lap. I didn’t care. She had drawn the final line between us.

The sky grew brighter. Lights blinked on in the city below us. I walked down the path to see the corner of the Parthenon from a better angle and sat down to watch it. A minute later, Stacey sat in front of me. She blocked my view of the Parthenon, but at least she hid Nick and Liz making out near the guardhouse, too.

“I’m sorry about what I said down there,” she said. “About the ruins. It didn’t come out the way I meant it to.”

“How could that have had a good meaning?” I asked.

“Look, I said I was sorry.” She looked up, as if Apollo would give her the words to get me back. “Can’t you let it go? We could have so much fun together.”

I shook my head. She had shown me more than anything that might have been in that suitcase would. I shifted my seat to regain my view of the temple and reached into my backpack. I threw some clothes on the dusty ground and gave her the Let’s Go. Then I took out two other books. The first was a Greek/English dictionary, the second, an old copy of The Iliad, in Greek. I’d bought them at the second-hand store after we got our plane tickets.

The first rays of the sun peeked over the horizon and shot through the pillars of the Parthenon. As Stacey paced in the glow, I began to read about the wrath of Achilles, and crossed into the peace I’d been searching for.

___

John M. Radosta teaches English near Boston, Massachusetts. He has written several novels and short stories, and has appeared in Pudding Magazine, KGB Bar & Lit, Morpheus Tales, Dark Valentine, and Crime Factory. His settings range from ancient Greece to the Boston underworld, but they all share strong ties to mythology. John lives in Boston with his wife and son and dog, readers all.

 


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