by Allison Field Bell
I’ve used this payphone a half dozen times, and I always describe the scene. It’s a tiny miracle, this phone beside the sea. I imagine writing about it: a part of the landscape that predetermines remembering. Like the small white chapels with the blue domed roofs or the octopuses strung up on clotheslines. You can feel memory skate over the surface of an object. This is the payphone by the sea in the town of Pariekia on the island of Paros in Greece.
It’s novel to use a payphone, and I imagine it more authentic somehow even though everyone on this island seems to have a cell phone. I call my parents on this payphone, back in California. I tell them about the hillsides of poppies, the fields of white daisies, the ferry cutting through turquoise, the taxi strike in Athens, my flat with the white walls and blue shutters.
Before here, I was in Prescott, Arizona, in college. I called my parents from there to tell them about classes, the high desert winter cold, javelina rooting through neighborhoods, the pine trees and the prickly pear.
I’m standing at the payphone talking to my mother. There’s a man dressed in all white nearby, loose pants and a loose long-sleeved shirt. A tunic. He wears a white hat too. More of a small cap. His bicycle leans against a few trees that edge the sidewalk, olive I think. He moves towards me. He has a cell phone but is pointing at it and gesturing to me.
I don’t speak Greek, but he’s not either. I hold up my hand, one minute.
The man paces the sidewalk beside me. There’s a breeze and the smell of fresh fish. Diagonal and across the street from me is a bar with pool tables where I’ve been with my colleagues.
There’s a picture of us there with pool cues and Greek beers. We’re making faces at the camera, already remembering the moment fondly.
My colleagues are all back in their flats. It’s early in the evening and some of them plan for a late night of dancing. This is possible most nights, and most nights I decline to participate. I am here to write in Greek cafes and run through hillsides of poppies.
The man says something again in a language I don’t recognize. He holds up his phone. He isn’t a large man, petite almost. But he lurches in a way that makes me straighten up and focus. My mother is saying something on the phone. Sorry, I say, there’s this guy.
My mother, like any mother, panics. What guy? Where are you?
It’s okay, I assure her. I have my pepper spray.
And I do. In my pocket and now shifted so it’s tucked up my sleeve.
I’m being paranoid, I know. Always, I am told this. By men especially: don’t carry a weapon because it can be used against you. Well. I tell men it’s for stray dogs, when I’m jogging. Men do not like to hear that pepper spray is for them.
Even in Greece, I have this weapon, my pepper spray.
The man in white paces by again. He comes close and holds up his phone again. I gesture more aggressively this time.
One minute. The sea darkens.
My mother is worried on the phone. Where are you? She asks again.
I’m in Greece on an island studying at an art program. The island is half-abandoned for the cold spring. Hotels and bars boarded up, cafes almost empty, only a few restaurants open. The man in white is somewhere behind me, further away down the street.
There are only six men in my art program. Most of them have never been abroad before. Everything is thrilling and beautiful to them. Drinking late at night in foreign bars. The streets of Athens in the early morning. I appreciate their enthusiasm. I do not worry so much when I am with them. But I do the most rewarding traveling alone. I run, every day, along crumbling orange cliffs, past abandoned hotels, through the poppies, through the daisies.
In Prescott, it was walking and running through neighborhoods of barking dogs and mobile homes, ponderosa pines and prickly pear. In Prescott, I carried a boot knife and pepper spray. They were my invincibility cloak. With them, I could sit in bars alone. With them, I could walk home by myself down Whiskey Row.
Here, in Greece, I have my pepper spray twisted open.
Maybe I’m stereotyping. This non-Greek man pacing. He is likely a refugee. From Pakistan or Albania. There are many here on Paros. I shake my head at my inhumanity. But: a man is a man is a man.
This man has disappeared from my sight again, gone I hope, though his bicycle is still nearby.
On the phone, my mother is sorting out a scholarship submission for me. She’s that kind of mother, and the scholarship must be printed and mailed to an address in Prescott. If I win, I receive a free cabin in the woods to write and do photography. On the phone, we’re double-checking the order of the pages. A table of contents. One, two, three…eighteen, nineteen… The next moment, the man is against me.
His full body against my full body.
Pressed into the pay phone, the sea disappeared from my vision. The metal cradle an anchor against my neck, the phone dropped and hanging, still connected, my mother on the line.
The man is sweat and booze. He is stronger than I guessed, all muscle and skin and white cloth. His face is up against mine. He is trying to kiss me.
Someone is screaming: a woman.
A woman is struggling against a man, pinned to a payphone beside the sea. I watch it from a distance: a memory or a dream.
The sea: how open and free, just there on the other side of pavement and sand. I am both beyond my body and acutely inside of it. There’s pain. My neck, the metal. There’s screaming. There’s skin and his lips on my face. I can taste the salt of his sweat, the liquor. I scream. I didn’t know I had this voice for screaming, but it won’t stop. I try to move my body away from his body, bending and arching. But there is nowhere to move. The man moves further against me, taking all my space with his body. My arms bound at my sides, the pepper spray useless. His mouth working along my jaw, my cheek. I scream.
I struggle with my legs against his legs. Mine strong from running through fields of poppies, of daisies.
Then suddenly there is space between us.
A man can always use a weapon against a woman, but a woman doesn’t use one until a man is against her.
And then she does.
In the space between us, so small and close: a cloud of burning.
And now, the man screams.
The sea is completely dark. The street is empty except for a man all in white, staggering. I’m freed, and now frozen.
To be trapped and then freed is impossible.
Moving is impossible. And then the thought: my mother on the phone. Run. I’m not thinking, I’m running. I run back towards my flat, across pavement. There’s a man on a tractor: I guess he could have been my hero. One man to displace another. I run. At the flat, in the common room, I’m screaming again.
Phone, I need a phone. I was attacked. And I almost laugh when I say it. Or I almost cry. My body shakes.
The women there are afraid, worried, handing me their phones.
The men stand up, angry and confident in their bodies. They run out together to the payphone. They say they’re going to get him, they’re going to get that bastard. I say quietly that I already did. I got him.
On the phone, my mother is hysterical. She has heard the entirety of the incident: the woman screaming (me), then the man.
I don’t even know where you are, she says over and over.
On an island, a Greek island. Paros, Pariekia.
Who could she call? What would the headline read?
She’s a mother and a woman, and she knows fear. The other women around me do too. No women going out without men, the director of the program will decide for us all. I will be blamed for my recklessness in walking alone to the payphone at dusk. I will no longer be allowed to travel without a cell phone. I will be required to view a lineup of refugees: men the Greek men reject. None of them will be familiar and even if they are: the pepper spray. I got him. I already did. The men of my program will steal his bicycle and say they got him because of it. They will be proud of themselves for standing up for me. They will be proud to escort the women to bars for dancing. How lucky, everyone will say, that I had pepper spray.
I will still make myself run, but I will be too afraid to enjoy the poppies, the turquoise. I will be afraid to be alone. I will reconsider the bars, Whiskey Row, the pine trees, the barking dogs. I will realize that I have taken far greater risks, that I have been lucky. I will become lucky for a woman: lucky I had pepper spray, lucky a man didn’t use it against me.
But right now, my mother is on the phone, and I am safe inside the common room of our flats.
I’m safe now, I tell her. I’m okay.
I’m okay, I’m okay, I’m okay.
Allison Field Bell is originally from California but has spent the better part of the past decade living and writing in the Southwest. She holds an MFA in Fiction from New Mexico State University and is pursuing her PhD in Fiction at the University of Utah. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Ruminate, The Cincinnati Review, West Branch, Shenandoah, The Pinch, The Florida Review, Fugue, New Madrid, The Gettysburg Review, and other publications.