September 14: My Number One – Helena Paparizou
I’ve been thinking a lot about Greece lately.
I spent a year in Greece, from 2004-05, teaching English. The specific decision to move to Greece was somewhat impulsive, but I’d wanted to live abroad for as long as I could remember. My dear friend Shannon was the first to suggest it, and before I knew it, my soon-to-be (but not yet) fiancé and I were planning to move across the ocean together, to a foreign country which he had visited once for a few weeks and I knew next to nothing about. It was an unforgettable year, including some of the best and most difficult times of my life.
If you really want to read about my time in Greece, my primitive blog from that year is still active. Today’s song, Greece’s entry and the eventual winner of 2005’s Eurovision Song Contest, is the one that immediately comes to mind any time I think of that year. But my real focus today isn’t necessarily the music, but something I’ve had sitting on my desktop for well over a year now and finally felt the need to do something with.
Last year, I sat down and started writing an essay that I had intended to submit to Modern Love. Just days after I finished it, my ex contacted me and started a week of reminding me of all of the reasons I was angry, and so I never sent the essay. It sat on my computer until I calmed down again, and then even after I calmed down, I still couldn’t bring myself to ever hit send.
But I was pretty proud of what I wrote, and since I had always meant for this to be published somewhere, I thought this would be as good a place as any. I haven’t touched the prose in well over a year, and I’m leaving it here completely unedited today (quite the accomplishment, if you know me and my compulsive need to edit and re-edit and re-edit yet again).
So, read if you’d like, skip if you don’t. But at least I’ve put this somewhere now. It’s a pretty personal one. There’s a reason I never sent it anywhere. But today felt like a good time to put it out there.
Memories sometimes hit you in unexpected places.
This morning was hot – a light hint of a breeze blowing through the humid air, the sun beating down unchallenged in a cloudless sky. As I stood on the platform awaiting my train, chewing the crunchy remnants of un-dissolved sugar at the bottom of my cup of Dunkin Donuts iced coffee, I found myself thinking of Greece – of the same hot air, the same cloudless sky, the same taste of crunchy sugar and cool coffee on my tongue.
One of the beverages of choice in Greece is the frappé – instant coffee blended with sugar and cream, served cold with a frothy top. Along with retsina and ouzo, it’s probably the national drink of Greece, and for me it carries strong connotations of warm days on a Greek island, drinking them lazily on a balcony overlooking the Mediterranean with my ex.
My ex was my fiancé then, and we were in Greece for a year of teaching English. Teaching English can also be translated into having no idea what you want to do with your life or delaying growing up at all costs. It can also be translated as spending one glorious, difficult, unforgettable year, just you and him, half a world away from your family, friends, and everything familiar to you. Greece was ours. Aside from a friend teaching on the other side of the country and a few weeklong visits from friends and my family, we were on our own. We spent that year facing every challenge together – a language barrier, challenging employers, homesickness – together and with only each other, forming memories that were ours and only ours. The visitors we had saw the Greece we wanted them to see… the Acropolis, the beaches, the gyros, and endless glasses of wine. They didn’t see the nights I spent homesick and crying. They didn’t see the frustrations of grocery shopping in a country where not just the language but also the alphabet is foreign, nor did they feel the accomplishment of carrying on a successful conversation in broken Greek. They didn’t get to know the neighbors we had and friends we made, the old Greek man who raised lambs which (not so mysteriously) disappeared right before Easter or the Scottish bartender who hadn’t been home in years. Greece to our visitors, and to most everyone else in my life, was a vacation destination. To us, for a year, it was home.
As I sipped my iced coffee this morning, all this came flooding back to me. The crunch of sugar in my Dunkin Donuts iced coffee was the crunch of sugar in my Greek frappés. That’s all it took, and I was there.
In the years following our divorce, the Greek year has remained an anomaly in my memories. I haven’t obsessively analyzed that year in the way I have other periods of our relationship (What if I hadn’t gone away that summer? Was I too eager to leave? Did I miss something that could have warned me sooner?), nor have I whitewashed it to remove him (If I think about it selectively, he was never really in DC, it was just my friends, the way it is when I visit now).
I can’t manipulate those memories. If I remove him from Greece, I remove myself, because it was his idea. If I question him in Greece, I question myself. In those memories, we are completely intertwined.
So instead, I just avoid thinking about it. An experience I used to not shut up about has become something largely unknown to people who have met me in the past two years. It’s often just too painful to talk or think about, because despite the challenges of living abroad, it was a great year. It’s something I was incredibly proud of us for doing. We became Us there. We tried to hold on to it throughout the rest of our relationship – making proper Greek salads (no lettuce), seeking out Greek church festivals, casually dropping Greek words into sentences, referencing inside jokes. And when I lost him, I felt as if I’d lost that year, because the people who knew me during that year – who really knew me, the Greek me – were very few and far between. I still make Greek salads, I still seek out Greek restaurants, I still occasionally play cheesy Greek pop music, but it all feels very distant now. I don’t let myself get close to it any more…
…Until I’m feeling the sunshine on my skin, feeling and tasting and hearing the sweet crackle of the sugar against my teeth, and I can’t fight it any more. I want to be in Greece. I want our claustrophobically small apartment, the sliding glass doors that fogged up during the rainy season, the couch where we once watched Christmas Vacation in German, the abandoned puppy we adopted for a few months, the bed where we had effortless sex on lazy Saturday mornings, feeling the breeze blowing through the curtains. I want the small handheld mixer and instant Nescafé that I used to make frappes to sip on the balcony afterward in the warm Grecian sun.
I don’t think about the pain. I don’t think about the fights we had, even then, the times we used to try to push each other to the breaking point because, in our joint stubbornness, neither of us would budge. I don’t think about the tears I’ve cried since – thousands of tears, so many I have lost count, over his cruelty, his infidelity, his unwillingness to even try to fix what had broken. I don’t think of the anger I’ve held on to for two and a half years, the feelings of loneliness and confusion and frustration and the constant queries of why me? In these moments – in these memories – I only feel the sun, the happiness I felt, and then sadness and a longing to have it all back again.
I don’t want these memories. I want to Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind myself and wipe them all away. Because in the moments where I let go of the anger and think fondly of him and our life together – even just for a moment – I am terrified. Fond thoughts – even just for a moment – might lead to forgiveness. To me letting go of all that anger. And that’s not what I want. He doesn’t deserve my forgiveness. What’s the point? He hurt me, and I’ve had to deal with that for two and a half years, and if I forgive him, and he gets off scot free, where does that leave me? What was the point of the past two and a half years then?
I’m not ready to answer those questions. I’m not ready to think of him as a real person again, as someone I used to love, as someone I was willing to share my entire life with. He’s much easier to deal with as a figure – the cheater – a character in a story I can easily tell, distanced from my current life. I don’t want to think about how he used to know my thoughts and emotions and hopes and dreams, every sigh and eye roll and every inch of my body. It hurts too much to think about, because if I think about the happy times, I have to also think of losing them, and losing him, and I’m not ready for that yet.
Yes, anger is easier. Distance is easier.
But every so often, in the heat of a sunny, summer day, I can’t help it. It sneaks up on me, in the form of un-dissolved sugar at the bottom of an iced coffee. And for a brief moment, I’m 22 years old, sun-kissed skin and windblown hair, sharing a soft kiss in the Mediterranean breeze with the only love I’ve ever known. I allow myself that moment.
And then it’s gone again.