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Art wanted to see him in the evening, but first he had something he had to do. Aminta lived in a town called Finikounda, somewhere in the hills above Pylos. She lived with her husband. She worked in a winery. She had stopped answering his calls. These were the things he knew about her. She had told him she didn’t need him, but that she had told him at all—that was something he held onto.
Martin took a taxi to Finikounda, through mountain roads pocked with roadside shrines. In the village he wandered until he found a local watering hole and stepped inside to get a drink and shelter from the afternoon sun. He knew he stood out. He sipped his whiskey on the rocks and wondered if the other patrons were talking about him, if word would get around. Every time the door opened he looked up, but it was never her.
Would Martin’s father have made this trip for him, for the inkling of him? He had been a good man, and a kind man, which wasn’t always the same thing, but he never talked much, or not to Martin anyway, not even when his mother was alive. His father used to watch him with this look, this dazed, helpless look, like he didn’t know how Martin had come to be. They had gone fishing sometimes. It wasn’t something Martin excelled at or particularly enjoyed, but his father seemed to relax, standing in a shallow riverbed to cast his fly fishing rod, or drifting in a small boat with a baited line dragging behind them. It was a socially acceptable way for father and son to spend time together without uttering a word. His father would only speak when they got a pull on the line, or when the North Star appeared at the end of the Little Dipper, and he would tell the story of the time he’d run off as a child and gotten lost in the backwoods of western Pennsylvania. He followed the North Star home, trekking for what seemed like hours until he could hear his pit bull barking in the yard, and then there was the old dog, paws up on the chain-link fence and tail wagging. The dog licked at his cheeks while he could see his family in the warm light of the kitchen window and above him, still, the star. He always told this story, and he told it like it was new and Martin didn’t know every word by heart. Maybe he was trying to tell him something. Maybe it was the only story he knew. And then Martin’s mother had died, and his father stopped saying much at all.
Several whiskeys later, and not a single blonde head in the bar. Martin stared at the men. Any of them could have been the husband. That one with the gut hanging over his belt, or that one with the bald patch. The one with whiskers and a white tee shirt nearly gray with sweat. He knocked back the last of the whiskey in disgust at the thought of any of these men, even the one in the collared shirt with the neat beard, even him, raising Martin’s child. He couldn’t stand the thought. What kind of father spent his days in a bar? Martin walked over to the collared shirt and grabbed him by the shoulder. The man turned to him in surprise, and said something Martin couldn’t understand. Martin hated him. The man laughed and said something, and now his friends at the bar were laughing too, and Martin wanted to knock the happiness right out of him, so he punched him in the teeth, and they stopped goddamn laughing.
When they met that night, Art’s eyes widened at the sight of him and his bruises.
“I saw someone—someone trying to steal from me,” he said when she asked. “So I punched him.”
She looked like she wanted to say something, then frowned and closed her mouth. She tried again. “Did you at least get your wallet back?”
She was concerned. He smiled, and pulled his wallet from his pocket. She changed the subject, but the frown lingered. Did she think he was dangerous, unhinged, or just weak? He couldn’t tell.
Art had one glass of wine that night and Martin had two. He looked at the label on the wine. One of Aminta’s? He didn’t want to think of her when he was with Art, but she clawed at the back of his mind, an ever-present predator. Being with Art felt like relief, like a respite from the terrible need that pulled at him in other moments like reeds tangling around his legs and dragging him underwater. She was a buoy, a lifeline, carrying him to the shore.
Art’s lips were painted a red that matched the drink. A silver chain disappeared under her blouse and he wanted to know what she was hiding. He wanted to know all the lies she’d told, even as he told his own.
He was very aware of her all night, but never more so than when they left the restaurant and this time she walked with him a bit. He pointed out constellations and she led them to the guitarist busking on the street. She did not hold his hand as they stood side by side, but her skin was so close to his that he could feel his heart beating and himself straining for her while the guitarist plucked delicate sounds and sang, thin and reedy, in Albanian. The guitarist paused between songs and said in accented English, “You may not know the words, but the water in your body will understand.”
She swayed to the music, and there with the smell of the sea on the wind and the lights of the town in her eyes, he felt drunk with the shape of her. He loved the fall of her dark hair, loved the birthmark on her collarbone and the slight lines around her eyes, loved the clear skin and brown eyes and the whorls on her fingers that traced his jaw that night. When she pulled her shirt off, the chain he had glimpsed before fell against her skin, and he saw the burnished gold of a ring before she slipped the chain over her head and pooled it on the bedside table. She was nothing like Aminta; her hair was darker, her smile sharper, her fingers pressing hard enough to bruise. He touched the pad of his thumb to the freckle by her eye, and he imagined he could feel her pulse beating in her temple, although he knew the thumb had a pulse too, so he didn’t know if the staccato beat was his or hers.
He couldn’t call Aminta with Art in his bed, so he waited for her to rouse. She pushed her hair out of her face and looked at him like she was surprised to see him even though they were in his hotel room. He wanted to know who shared her bed back in Poughkeepsie, but it was too soon to ask.
There was a street market a short distance from town, and Martin and Art walked there side by side, though not hand in hand. Art fondled apples and pears and told him about the immense avocados she’d seen in Mexico. She tugged him to a halt to buy a cup of ouzo, and a flash of blonde over Art’s shoulder caught his eye. Not her.
“You look like you need a drink,” Art said. She lifted the cloudy glass to his lips, and he, unable to resist, drank.
She linked her arm with his. “I don’t want to go back.”
“To the hotel?”
“No,” she said. “To work. Life.”
“Who says you have to go back?” he said.
She swatted his chest with her free hand. He held tighter to the arm she had given him. He should have been—doing something, he didn’t know what, but it was easier, more pleasurable, to follow Art.
Later, they found a vendor with coffee beans from Ethiopia and the Ivory Coast. He liked the smell of the beans, but he liked even more the way Art smiled when she sank her fingers into the burlap sack. He purchased them for her, and she asked him to cup his hands together so she could pour a few into the open bowl of his palms and take a picture. Sometimes she asked him to take her photo. When he looked at her through the lens, she became someone not quite herself. Perhaps he was seeing the woman she wanted to be. She never took his picture; he did not know who he would be in her eyes.
Martin had asked Art before why she liked photography. “The camera sees things the eye doesn’t,” she’d said, “and a picture says more than we ever do.”
He wondered what she would see in the still image of his cupped hands, and later he would take out the coffee beans, their scent long gone, to turn over in his fingers and try to read what she was telling him.
They were the first thing he took.