Aminta wore pearls in her ears and a ring on her finger, but Martin didn’t care. She was visiting New York and stumbled up the Hudson to Poughkeepsie and the deli where he worked. She sounded out the whole word, delicatessen, as so few did these days. She went back to Greece two weeks later and he only thought of her occasionally, rolling the pearl earring she had left behind between his thumb and forefinger.
When she told him she was pregnant, he wasn’t holding the earring but he wanted to feel it between his palms. Her words echoed down the phone line and he imagined her whispering to him across the ocean, but his thoughts were moving slower than the speed of sound because he could not conjure a single word in response except, I need a drink, but even he had the sense not to say that.
“I only ask for your medical history,” she said. She waited, but he couldn’t think past the bottle of scotch in the liquor cabinet. “This is only a—how do you say—a formality. My husband will be the father.”
He couldn’t feel his fingers. “Is it a boy or a girl?”
“Oh, Martin. It does not matter.”
Martin liked a good drink and the occasional smoke. It wasn’t like he had a problem. But he had never needed a drink as badly as he did that day, and the next morning he smoked half a pack before noon and, still in a haze from the news, called a lawyer he knew. The lawyer said he didn’t have much of a chance of shared custody. He couldn’t take the child to another country, away from its mother, and he didn’t have the money to pack up and move to Europe. His buddies at the bar said the same thing. But she had called him. She didn’t have to do that, but she did it all the same. So he had to try.
At 37, Martin had lived a life without struggle, not because everything came easily to him but because he did not fight for the things that didn’t. Until he boarded a plane and crossed an ocean for a possibility of fatherhood.
In Greece, he made his way to Pylos, the port city she lived near. He had her phone number, hastily scratched down on the back of a receipt after that transatlantic call. Now, here he was, curling the cord around his fingers and pacing as much as he could in his small hotel room while he listened to her phone ring on the other end.
She answered in Greek. “Parakalo.”
“It’s me,” he said.
Aminta paused. “Who is this?”
Static down the phone line. The window was open, and someone on the street below shouted in Greek. “Please tell me this is an international call,” Aminta said.
He didn’t answer.
“Malaka. Martin. What are you doing here? I told you, there is, there is no need for you to come.”
He twisted the cord between his fingers. His hotel room had a rotary phone, which he hadn’t seen since he was a kid. “I just want to see if…”
“Martin, I am sorry, but there is nothing you can do. I should not have told you.”
He wanted to say, “I’m glad you did,” but he didn’t know if it was the truth.
The hotel only had three stars in Lonely Planet, but he thought it deserved four just for the rotary phone. The room was clean and brightly lit, with pale yellow walls and windows with a view of the red-roofed town, tiny and huddled around the bay. It came with hot water all day, twelve channels on the small TV in the corner, laundry services, and a safe in the lobby where he’d stowed his passport.
“I have made my decision,” she said.
“And your husband?” He pulled the phone as far as it would go, just stretching across the small room to the window. “Does he know?”
“Ne, he knows.” She paused again and he listened to her breathe down the line. “Go home, Martin. Do not call me again.”
But she had disconnected.
When Martin was just 19, he’d gotten a girl pregnant, and then when she’d told him what she wanted to do, he had picked up extra shifts at work and lived on canned beans for two weeks to pay for the abortion. She hadn’t asked him to come with her, so he didn’t, and the relationship quietly fizzled out a few months after that. He still had a few odd things of hers—a glove she’d left behind, an ancient tube of lip gloss—and he thought of the baby that might have been sometimes, over the years, when he passed children on the street or in supermarkets. When Aminta called him two weeks ago, he thought, She would have been 17. For that brief moment listening to her voice on the phone, he thought he could be somebody.
One cold night in New York, Aminta had pressed herself against his naked back and wrapped her arms around him. They lay close, sweaty and shivering where the blankets didn’t reach. She’d mumbled about Homer and a beach back home where she liked to go.
Now it seemed fitting to go to Voidokilia, the beach where, as the story said, Odysseus’s son Telemachus landed in his search for a father. The beach was hidden, a horseshoe-shaped lagoon separated from the tourist beach by rolling dunes and grassy ruins. It was there that he saw her—no, not Aminta. Art. Martin first saw Art when he crested the hill and stood looking below to the white sand and her skin so bright under the Mediterranean sun as she walked into the blue, blue water of Voidokilia. The baby, Aminta, the husband, his father, the daughter that hadn’t been—all those things slipped away. Focus, he told himself. Find Aminta. But Aminta wasn’t here, and she was, and he felt that he could write odes to the way she pushed her wet, tangled hair from her face, or the shifting of her toes in the sand, or the water drops that slid down her skin and caught the light and caught him, too, in that moment.
Martin was a confident man in most of his endeavors. He lived a life with few consequences, and with nothing to fear he feared no failure. But today he was not here for himself, and so when she turned in his direction, he looked down at his toes in the sand. Telemachus, barely a man at twenty, had landed on this shore in search of a father he’d never known. A damn fool, Martin’s father might have called him, if he said anything at all.
“Kalimera,” someone said.
He looked up to find the woman a few feet away, shifting her weight from foot to foot. He pointed to himself. “English. No Greek.”
She laughed. “Oh good. I just got that from a phrasebook.”
She asked him to take a picture of her. She had a real camera, a digital SLR with a sticker on the back that said “MIND THE GAP.” She stepped back towards the water and Martin looked through the viewfinder as she tapped her fingers against her thighs, then one hand twisted up towards her neck as though reaching for something that wasn’t there. She squared her shoulders, put her hands on her hips, and smiled for the photograph.
After the shutter clicked, he said, “Now I’ve stolen your soul.”
She laughed, a little.
He held the camera out to her with a smile. “You could return the favor.”
She took it without touching his hands. “You’d better keep it. I wouldn’t know what to do with a stranger’s soul.”
“Not a stranger,” he said. “I’m Martin.” She raised one eyebrow and told him her name was Marta. Martin and Marta, he thought—it could not be a coincidence.
“Oh no,” she said, “we can’t call ourselves that. Do you have a nickname?”
He shook his head no, but it was all right, she told him, because she did—her family called her Art because her little brother had not been able to say her name as a child. He said the name out loud. It fit.
Martin should not have called her again. No, not the woman from the beach—Aminta. There were many things he should not have done with Aminta.
He listened to the ringing on the other end. One, two, three. He stretched the cord as far as it would go and paced the room. Four, five, six, and then—a male voice answered in Greek. The husband. His words tilted up in a question. Martin said nothing.
“Aminta?” the husband asked.
Martin’s hand tightened on the phone, then he hung it up with a clang.
It was early in the evening, and below him the streets of Pylos were just waking up. He didn’t feel it strange, merely inevitable, that he should see her again, the woman from the beach, this time weaving her way through the other pedestrians into a restaurant a few doors down from the hotel where Martin stood.
He left the empty hotel room and walked into the hot night. A force compelled him, a need, a hair-thin line stretching from her navel to his. Martin, as a rule, followed his whims. She was sitting at a small table in the back of the restaurant, alone. She was reading something, even though this corner of the restaurant was dim, atmospheric, and so she pressed forward towards the candle flickering in the center of the table. As he watched, she frowned at the book, then picked up a pen and wrote something on the page. He decided he liked that she was willing to make a mark.
She looked up before he could say hello, and she was still frowning.
He coughed. “We met earlier, at the beach. I, uh, stole your soul?” He twisted his lips at the joke but she didn’t laugh. He glanced down and back up, this time with a smile. “Let me try again? Hi, we met earlier today, would you mind if I joined you?”
She gave him a long, measuring look, but he knew she was in before she closed her book and waved to the empty chair.
Marta, or Art as he would know her, was wearing dark makeup around her eyes and heavy gold earrings that dragged down the line of her neck to the juncture with her shoulder, and when she turned her head just so the earring cast a long shadow across her breastbone, exposed over the top of the tight black dress. He wondered why she was so dressed up for dinner alone, and didn’t dare to think that she had expected him.
She told him that she was from Poughkeepsie and he felt a thrill at the news that they were practically neighbors. She was a photographer, he the manager of a delicatessen, specializing in fine cheeses. She didn’t laugh at his jokes, just kept looking at him like she was grading him, but when she finally cracked a smile he knew she was grading on a curve. She asked how long he was staying, to which he shrugged and bit into a grilled pepper so hot it stung. He washed it down with wine, then asked her about the book she had been reading when he came in. He could see now that it looked more like a journal than a book. She set her palm over it.
“It’s nothing,” she said. “A bit of family history.”
She coughed, and he changed the subject. “What brings you to Pylos?”
“Oh, well, I wanted to go to Fiji but Greece was cheaper.”
“Really?” he said.
“No, I picked a random spot on the globe and ended up here.”
“No, you didn’t,” he said, but she just smiled at him without any teeth and took another sip of her wine while his rested forgotten in front of him.
“Oh, well, I wanted to go to Rome,” he lied, “but this was cheaper.” This was untrue, of course, but she clinked her glass against his. Maybe she found his lie as enticing as he did hers. “I’m on an odyssey,” he said later when she pressed him.
“Me too,” she said. “It’s good, isn’t it? To get away from your life sometimes.” She held her glass to her cheek, and he didn’t know if it was a question. Then she turned her smile back on. “This is going to be a good week.”
When they parted that night, it was nearing midnight and the restaurant was still flushed with the late diners, making her press close to his back as they wound their way between the tables into the burst of dry summer air outside. There was a guitar player down the street to their left, a small crowd gathering around him in a half moon, and Marta—Art—stared at the musician for a long moment before turning back to him. Their faces were very close. She nodded to some unvoiced question before saying, “Do this again tomorrow?”