Pythagoreans

Straight vs. Crooked

 

“You know there are no straight lines in it? That’s what makes it perfect.”

My mother wipes her forehead, at the narrow fold of her brow where sweat has begun to pool. 

I say, “Of course there are no straight lines in it. The whole thing’s in ruins.”

She makes her way closer to the temple, past a throng of tourists, leathered blondes—Dutch, maybe. Dutch or German. I follow her. 

“You’re missing the point,” she says. “You don’t understand. Yes, the whole thing’s in ruins. But there have never been any straight lines in it. The eye has a tendency to see columns thinner in the middle, regardless of their uniform width. So when they constructed it, they compensated for that by bowing the columns in a little bit, giving them this slight curve. They had the foresight to know that we’d register them as linear, as perfect.” 

I place both hands on the small of my back. I lean and stretch, tease the muscle. 

She asks, “That’s fascinating, isn’t it?”

“Who are they?” I reach my hands up as high as they’ll go into the grey air; I stand on my toes. I’m still jet-lagged. 

“The Greeks. Who-the-hell else would’ve built the Parthenon?”

My mother looks at me. She adjusts her sunglasses so they sit higher on her thin nose. 

“Do you want one of those hats?” She points to a stand where you can buy headpieces meant to look like Hermes’ helmet: round caps; bowls, really—plastic gold wings sticking limply, humiliated, out from the sides. The vendor selling them is wearing a Greek toga, except instead of sandals he’s wearing sneakers, really elaborate and perfect sneakers. Black high tops with straps and bright laces. They’ve all got them, I’ve noticed in the past eighteen hours we’ve been here. Despite not having anything else, everyone in Greece has perfect sneakers. 

“No,” I tell her. “What could I possibly do with one of those hats.”

She shrugs and takes her camera out of her purse. I watch her as she begins circling the temple, taking pictures of the columns from angles no one else would consider. 

 

 

Good vs. Evil

 

My mother studies perfection. Or, more specifically, aesthetic perfection. It started out as a hobby, a holdover from her years as an art history major, but when I was in the tenth grade she went back to school at the local university for her PhD, so she could make her hobby official. Her dissertation was about something involving circles in Renaissance architecture, but her interests are sort of all over the place. She spent a month in France two years ago studying Diderot at the Bibliothèque nationale. The year before that she spent six months studying the Tang dynasty before going to Beijing to read poetry and look at calligraphy and do a general survey of the Three Perfections. 

“What is it that you’re looking for, exactly?” I remember asking her once. She was explaining a Mantegna painting to me. 

She just said, “I don’t know what you mean,” before adding: “I wish that, just once, I could get you to look closer at things. To actually appreciate them.”

Two years ago I started telling her that it wasn’t beauty she was interested in, but rather grief, and that she wasn’t just interested in it, but addicted to it. One morning she was reading the obituaries, for no particular reason, and I told her that the only reason she liked perfection was because it allowed her to forget, at least for a few minutes at a time, how miserable she actually was. She walked away from the kitchen table without taking her coffee or the paper with her. I didn’t think it was true when I said it, and I don’t think it’s true now, though I’ve never gone so far as to correct myself to her; it was just one of those things that sons say to their mothers when they’ve known each other a little too long. 

 

 

Rest vs. Motion

 

 I run my tongue along the roof of my mouth, and notice how the air here is different, how the air everywhere is different. In Los Angeles you smell the air, the salt and the celluloid and the plastic. In Washington, you feel it, the humidity, the regret of building a capital in the middle of a swamp. Here in Athens, though, you taste it. The chalky paste of dust, the sour acidity of exhaust, of the pollution pillowed up against Mount Parnitha.

I’m still sitting on the bench when she’s finished making her rounds with the camera. I look up at her, squinting at the sun, when she asks,  “Are you ready?”

 

 

Male vs. Female

 

It had been my father’s thought to bring her here. 

This was a month ago, and he called to inform me of the diagnosis and pose the idea in the same hurried breath: “The cancer’s back so I’d like you to take your mother away.”

I was cutting something—apples, maybe. 

“Jesus, dad.”

“Just for a week or something. Maybe two. Can you take off two weeks?”

“How are you feeling?”

“Inconvenienced.”

This had been my father’s reaction the last three times he received this diagnosis (there have been five, in sum). The man has been cursed with a rare, recurring case of low-grade non-Hodgkins follicular lymphoma. And while his oncologists insist on treating the disease whenever it returns, specialists from New York to Los Angeles to Houston have all told him that he’s more likely to lose his life to something else, to pneumonia or high blood pressure or a car accident, than he is to be killed by cancer. 

Still, though. 

For the most part he keeps calm, but I imagine it’s got to be infuriating. This knowledge that cancer will continue to pause the course of your life, but will never be kind enough to stop it completely. That you’ve managed to inherit an imperfect form of an otherwise perfect killer. 

“What can I do?” I arranged the apple slices into an equilateral triangle.

“I just told you.”

“Dad—”

“I’m being serious, Will. Take her away. Just until the treatment’s started, at least.” 

“But where?”

“Anywhere. Go anywhere, for Christ’s sake. Take her to Florida.” Then: “No, not Florida. She hates Florida. And it’s too close, anyway. Take her somewhere else, somewhere that’s at least seven hours ahead or behind California.”

“That makes no sense.”

“Sure it does: I want her to be asleep whenever I’m awake.” Then: “I have doctors. I don’t need her telling me how to beat this thing, again.”

“She’ll never go for it.”

“She’ll have to. She’ll kill us both if she sticks around.”

I eat one of the slices, ruining my triangle’s perfect symmetry. 

“Well,” I said, chewing, “I don’t know where the hell I’m supposed to take her.”

“There’s this temple she keeps going on about.” On my father’s end of the line, I heard a door opening, the sound of feet on soil. “I can’t get these damned tomatoes to grow for the life of me.”

“A temple?”

“Yeah, a temple. Bunch of ruins. In Greece. She’s been reading a lot about Greece recently. Plato, Plutarch, Pythagoras. All those guys. Have you heard anything about feeding plants egg shells?”

“No. Or, I don’t know, maybe?” I eat another slice. “So you’re saying Greece? You want me to take her to Greece?”

“Why not? See the temple, eat some pita, some tzatziki. She’s crazy about tzatziki.”

“I’m not going to do this for you every time you get sick.”

He tells me, “You’re a great son. Has anyone ever told you that?” 

 

 

Right vs. Left

 

“Tomorrow we’ll take the ferry from Pireaus to Aegina,” my mother says. We’re at the restaurant in our hotel, and she’s got a ferry schedule spread out in front of her. “That’s where it is, in Aegina.”

 I look around. It’s fancy, I guess, but comfortably fancy, in that way that all hotel restaurants strive to be: low lighting, white table cloths, its name—ELENI’S—outlined behind the hostess stand in faint blue fluorescence. 

I don’t say anything and she asks, “Doesn’t this interest you at all?”

“Sure,” I say. She smiles, so I repeat myself: “Sure it does.”

I order pita and tzatziki and wine for both of us, and when the waiter—tall, attractive, strong Greek nose—sets it all on the table, he smiles at me. 

“He likes you,” my mother says. She holds the wine glass by its stem, moves it in tiny circle. “He smiled at you.”

“He’s a waiter. Of course he smiled. Have some pita.”

She takes a piece from the basket and pastes it with tzatziki. 

“How is it,” I ask her.

“The best goddamned pita I’ve ever had.”

“Stop.”

“I’m not doing anything.” She grins. “He’s coming back.”

“Who?”

“The waiter.” She smoothes her napkin down on her lap. “Ask for something.”

“Mom, please –”

She raises a finger, gives the man a nod. “Ask for water,” she says. “Ask him for more water.”

I stumble through the phrases I read in a guidebook I bought back in New York: “Nero, parakalo.”

He smiles again, refills our glasses; I tell him efharisto, and he slides away to the table next to us.

“Sorry,” she says, even though she’s not. “I know you hate when I do that.”

“I do. I really do.”

“I just get worried about you, that’s all.”

I fold one of the pita triangles in half and stuff it into my mouth. “Worried about what?”

“Oh, just not having someone to…not having someone to balance you. To play to your other half. I just worry about you being lonely.”

I tell her to knock it off.

The fact, though, is that I am sometimes, I think, lonely. Or maybe I’m not—maybe I just get bored. My first relationship—the only one, actually—was with a PhD student from Columbia named Paul who I think I loved and who I know my mother adored; it ended a year and a half ago. I met him six months after moving to New York, which meant it must’ve been about two years since telling her I was gay. She fawned over him, called him Pauly, flew across the country to celebrate his birthday with us at a seedy bar in the East Village.  We were happy together, mostly; proud and open when it was safe to be (below 14th street, but not in the financial district; above 59th street, but only on the west side). Things fell apart, though, when I told him I wasn’t ready to kiss in Midtown, when he accused me of only dating him to impress her.  Oh, you’re breaking my goddamned heart, I’d told him flippantly, sarcastically. No, he said. No, you’re taking care of that on your own. 

My mother is reciting ferry times, all of which are early tomorrow morning. She begins explaining that the temple to Afea on Aegina, the island that we’ll be going to, acts as one of the points of a holy, pre-Christian equilateral triangle; the other two are the Parthenon in Athens, and some other temple in Sounion. 

“Each side, perfectly the same,” she says. 

“I might go out tonight,” I say, interrupting her. “Just to explore.”

 

 

Light vs. Dark

 

At 10:30, when we’ve finished dinner without speaking anymore with the waiter, my mother tells me that she’s going back to the room to call my father. 

“The ferry’s at 7:30,” she reminds me.

I kiss my mother on the cheek and tell her I won’t be late. 

Out on the street, the air tastes almost the same as before: still that mix of exhaust and dust. But now, without the day, there’s something else—olives, maybe. Their bitter green skins. Their salt. 

I walk northwest, pass the Eleftherias Park and the art center there before I flag down a taxi. The driver calls me a malaka for slamming his door too hard, and then he asks me where I want to go. 

“I don’t know,” I tell him in English. He looks in the rear view mirror, his eyes obscured by a baseball cap pulled down too far on his face. Behind us, though, someone honks, and so I say, “Kazarma. Karzama, the discotheque.” It’s the first place that comes to mind, a place Paul used to talk about whenever he’d get drunk on white wine and recount these mythical exploits of his post-collegiate travels in Europe. Kazarma, he’d say, rubbing an open palm against his beard, against the brown and red and grey bristles. It was there that I learned a valuable lesson: never—and I mean never-–sleep with a man from Portugal. 

Despite the traffic, we’re there in less than ten minutes. That’s something I’m discovering about Greece—the history of the place makes everything seem so far apart, it makes you forget that, really, this country is built on top of itself. Roads atop ruins, gas stations atop failed cities. Inside the club it smells like man-made fog and the mild burning of strobe lights left on too long. It’s mostly dark but there are patches, corners of light, which illuminate empty spaces. There are hardly any Portuguese men, if any at all; there are hardly any Greeks, any Americans, any British, German or Dutch.  I suddenly remember: it’s Tuesday. 

I sit at the bar, at the end of a long stretch of empty stools. I tell the bartender I’d like some ouzo, parakalo, and he raises a thick eyebrow. Not because of my gall, I know, but because no one my age—not where I’m from and certainly not here, in Greece—drinks that shit. 

Still, I repeat myself: ouzo, parakalo. 

He shrugs. With thick fingers blanketed in hair he sets a plastic cup on the table, drops three ice cubes into it, then fills it half way up with the drink. It splashes over the ice and turns milky, opaque.  

I take a sip and say: “God, that’s really awful.”

He says, “Ne, ne—the fucking worst,” and refills my plastic cup.

“Me lene Will.” I hold the drink in my hand, stare down into it, at the murky clouds that take shape and then disperse. 

“You do not have to speak Greek.”

“It’s fun,” I tell him. “It’s fun to try.” I look at the glass and say, “I’m only going to drink this if you have some, too.”

 

 

One vs. Many

 

He laughs, rubs a hand against his beard like Paul used to do. His hair hangs in loose, half-assed curls. We drink and then cringe, suck air in through closed teeth.

“Me lene Dionysus.”

“You’re kidding me.”

He wipes both hands against his jeans. “It is a common name in this country. It is our John.” He tells me to sit still, to wait while he serves another customer, a Scandinavian who has taken a seat at the other end of the empty stools. 

When he returns, he leans in closer to me, across the black bar, and asks, “And where is it that you come from.” 

“New York.”

He points at his ear, shakes his head.

“NEW YORK.” 

He nods. “And you come here alone?”

“Yes, alone. Well—no.  No, I came to Greece with my mother, but she is at the hotel where we stay.”

I wonder why this happens; why, when you’re in some distant country speaking to someone who understands you perfectly well, you end up trying to talk like them, mimicking their accent, trying to make things easier only so he’ll understand you less. Hotel where we stay. 

I reach into my wallet, retrieve a picture that was taken two years ago of my mother, my father, and I near a lake in Yosemite.

“She does not like to dance?”

“She very much likes to dance, but we must rise early tomorrow.” 

“Why?”

“We are going to Aegina.”

Dionysus makes a face. Says, “There are many more nicer places than Aegina.”

“There’s something there that my mother would like to see.”

“It is the temple, I am sure.”

“Yes,” I tell him. I cross my legs at the ankles, lock them around one of the stool’s legs. “Have you been?”

“Ne, ne.” Dionysus nods.

“And is it beautiful?”

He thinks for a moment, pushing his eyebrows together and chewing on his cheek. “It’s very much like the rest of the temples in Greece.” 

Dionysus cocks his neck sideways. He dries his hands on his jeans and lifts the photo from the bar. “You,” he says. “You look like her.”

There is more ouzo. Or, specifically—some vodka, and then more ouzo.

And then I say, “Did you know that there are no lines that are straight in the Parthenon?” 

“Every Greek man knows that.”

“And every Greek man is named Dionysus.”

“Most of us, at least.”

I say,  “I know someone who slept with a Portuguese man in this club.”

“Portogaliká?” He is stacking plastic cups in tall towers along the sides of the bar.

“Yes. Portogaliká.”

He stops stacking, wipes at his forehead with a bare, brown arm, says, “This must have been a Saturday.”

 

 

Square vs. Oblong

 

It’s almost two o’clock, and I’m about to leave, but then he tells me that he’ll be done with his shift in ten minutes, and that he lives only two blocks away, and so I wait. His apartment is small—about as small as mine is back in New York—but he makes better use of the space: there’s a daybed that doubles as a couch, a series of plastic storage containers that, in my apartment, would look cluttered, like temporary solutions, but that here, after midnight in Athens, look perfect, permanent, building blocks of the Acropolis. 

Even though there is no mess, I expect him to apologize for one—this is something that I do, and so I’ve always suspected that other people do, too—and when he doesn’t, I get uncomfortable, so I tell him that his apartment is very nice.

“Clean,” I say. “You keep it clean.”

“Yes.”

“My apartment, it’s never this clean.” I turn. Inspect the walls, the shelves, where the dust might hide. 

When I turn back around he’s taken his shirt off. His body is composed of perfect squares: I think of how this is the first thing that my mother would say, if she were standing here, with her keen interest in how things look, her obsession with the shape of them. Squares for his chest, for his ribcage, for the area dense with hair above his groin; everything at the same perfect right angle, everything adding up to a perfect three hundred sixty degrees. Lines are where they’re supposed to be; they converge in a series of sharp points beneath a layer of slick skin, of hair.  And then, I think, there’s me: beneath my shirt, which I’ve yet to remove, there are circles. Or, ovals. They interlock in strange places, forming oblong Venn diagrams. 

“Your shirt,” he tells me. “Take it off.”

I pause. I grab the bottom hem of my shirt, but I stop. Dionysus, though, he keeps going; he gets his pants down so that they’re bunched around his ankles, and then his underwear—briefs, bright colors, a brand that I don’t know but with lots of X’s in its name—down around his knees. His cock’s out, but he’s not really doing much with it; he’s just holding it there, half-limp in his hand, like it’s something to be examined, prodded. And I know that this is supposed to be hot, and a part of me is saying that it is, but this other part of me—one that, at least in the last year and a half, has been louder—can only focus on the fact that this cock isn’t quite hard, and it isn’t quite soft, which means that it doesn’t have a discernible opposite. And so I’m left thinking what it is, exactly, that I’m supposed to be seeing. 

“So?” he says. “What do you think?”

“It’s nice.” 

When Pauly broke up with me, it was sunny, and we were standing on the corner of 1st Avenue and 2nd Street. He hugged me, and said that he hoped that I’d find what I was looking for, and I told him that everyone always says that without ever knowing what it means. “Don’t be a dick, Will,” he’d said. “I’m trying to give you go—you know, forget it. You know exactly what I mean.” I told him yes, okay, I knew what he meant, and then once he left, I sat on a bench and tried to figure out what, precisely, it was. 

“You know,” I say to Dionysus. “I should probably go.”

 

 

Finite vs. Infinite

 

In the morning my mother and I take a taxi to the Port of Piraeus, where there’s a hydrofoil called The Mega Dolphin! that ferries us between Athens and the island of Aegina. It takes us nearly 30 minutes to escape the harbor, where pools of leaked gasoline glow iridescent in the sun, but then, suddenly, we hit a small wake, and the grey from the port has given way to green, then blue, and then an Aegean azure that stretches forever toward the horizon. 

We’re standing on the foil’s upper deck. The wind whips at my face. 

“Did you get ahold of Dad last night?” I ask my mother. 

“I did.”

“And how’s he doing?”

My mother changes the subject. She begins explaining how Aegina sits near the center of the Saronikos Kolpos, an oval of aquamarine Mediterranean that swills and slushes between Attica and the Peloponnesos. It’s the largest island in the gulf, surrounded by Poros and Ydra to the south, Agistri and Methana to the west. They rise, these islands, languidly, beautifully. The carved-out bowls of forgotten craters, swallowing water only when the tide comes in far enough to reach their mouths. 

When we’ve reached the port, I follow my mother as she disembarks via the hydrofoil’s long uneven gangplank. When she hits the pavement, she nearly breaks out into a sprint; she pushes past women with suitcases, and carts selling philo dough pastries filled with feta cheese, so that she’s first in line before a long row of taxis. 

“You’ve got to slow down,” I tell her, once I’ve scooted into the cab next to her. “This thing’s been around for a thousand years. It’s not going anywhere.”

“It’s the crowds. I just don’t want to deal with the crowds.” She gives the driver the temple’s name.

“We’re on an island that no tourist has ever heard of, going to see a temple built for a goddess that was only worshiped here. I don’t think there are going to be any crowds.”

She doesn’t answer. She just sets a hand on my knee and squeezes as we wind our way out of the island’s port town, past low Byzantine buildings with red roofs. The road rises along a shallow incline, and before too long we’re looking down the island’s burnt sloping hills, loose fists of dried sage that curl up into the Aegean. The temple itself is on the other side of the island, the east side, on top of a crest spotted with occasional pines. 

“You never answered my question on the boat,” I say to her. I have my arm propped against the open window, and I watch the ocean stay in one place as we race past it. “What’d Dad have to say?”

The taxi starts rolling to a stop. Dirt, redder than it was in Athens, gathers around the tires in dense clouds. 

“HELLO,” I shout. “WHAT DID HE SAY.”

All she does is kick the door open and say we’re here.

 

 

Beauty vs. Grief

 

We ask the driver to wait for us. He protests at first, but my mother says she’ll pay him extra. 

“It was built for Afea,” she tells me. “This is the only temple dedicated to her.”

We walk up a series of long, shallow stone steps to a rectangle of Doric columns. Some of them bear the weight of a half-crumbled pediment; some of them only hold the sky. We can’t actually set foot in the temple—a drooping chain fence protects it from tourists—but we can circle around it, count our steps on each side. There’s a bench to one corner, like there was yesterday, at the Parthenon, but today I follow my mother as she makes her rounds. She’s talking as she goes—though, today I notice that her voice is slower, heavier than it was yesterday—saying something about the Minoans, and the Late Geometric Phase, and Peleus, and pedimental sculptures. I try to hear, or to understand what she’s saying, but I can’t stop looking through the viewfinder of her camera, at the way the parts of the temple—its unexpected tunnels, its creases—reconfigure themselves in pixels on the screen. Below us, the breeze rips ribbons across the sea. 

“Watch your step,” my mother tells me. 

There was this one night, before Pauly and I broke up, when we were walking back from some movie theater and we managed to catch the sun setting between the skyscrapers in Manhattan. I kept trying to walk, but he’d stop me, pointing to it again and again: how the sun was creating these magnificent images off of otherwise ugly buildings. The way that this—a sunset—wasn’t something that was supposed to exist on an island built of steel. But that’s the way it is with beauty, he told me, before we crossed the street, back into the shade of some apartment complex on 68th. It happens because you don’t expect it to.

My mother’s sitting, now. She’s finished taking pictures of the temple, and now she’s resting on the bench. Around us, a handful of other tourists pick their way through the ruins, but my mother ignores them. She’s too focused on the columns, on the pediments, on the blue that extends beyond them. 

She looks at me, and smiles, and wipes something from one of her eyes. 

She asks me, “Do you see what I mean now? Do you see it?”

“I do,” I lie. “Yes, I think I do.”