They lounged in deck chairs facing the open bay off Piraeus. The remains of their lunch on the table between them attracted a swarm of blue flies that buzzed around their heads and had to be brushed off with a wave of the hand. Other than this, there was no disturbance. It was warm in the open under the sun but a breeze coming up across the bay prevented it from being uncomfortable.
The captain had shut off the engines and the throbbing below deck that had made conversation difficult before was replaced by the soothing rhythm of the waves slapping against the bow. The Xanthippe rocked gently in the swell.
Jake stirred in his chair. “We should tell him to go in soon,” he said.
“I don’t want the day to end,” she answered.
“You know it must.”
Jake didn’t answer. He was in no hurry for the day to end either. The languor resulting from the meal, the warmth of the sun and the mood were too pleasant to abandon for the moment.
It had been a pleasant day.
They left Athens early that morning and came to Piraeus. Elena knew the captain of the Xanthippe and he had agreed – despite lack of prearrangement – to take them to the nearby island of Hydra for the day. They had a wonderful time roaming about the picturesque harbor and town and swimming at one of the small beaches.
Before coming back aboard the Xanthippe they had stopped in the market and bought the ingredients for their lunch. They would have been content to sit on the deck and eat but the captain insisted on having a table and chairs brought up for them. The simple meal of large dark olives, feta cheese and bread washed down with a bottle of the local wine took on the character of a gourmet feast.
Now Jake gazed out to where the sea met the horizon and realized it was the most peaceful time he’d known in months.
He turned to Elena and took her hand in his under the table.
With her dark hair pulled back from her long, lovely neck and whipping in the breeze, he thought she looked the way he had always imagined a Greek goddess should look.
She broke the spell then, asking, “Why are you staring at me?”
He laughed, squeezing her hand more tightly in his. “I can’t help myself.”
“Did you enjoy yourself, Jake?”
“I did. It’s been an almost perfect day.”
It was then as he turned his gaze back to the sea for a moment that he saw the yacht and it distracted his attention from Elena. The yacht, a yawl actually, a plain but trim little vessel, was drifting in close across the starboard bow. But, it wasn’t the ship that attracted his attention. It was the woman who had just made a dive from the bow.
It was a nicely executed dive and, strangely, it reminded him of the tern.
The sun slanted through the awning over them and its warmth stroked his face evoking an involuntary shudder as he recalled it had been that same pleasant sensation and the tern which had brought him back to reality yesterday.
He had gone off early by himself to Sounion while Elena went sightseeing in Athens with Joseph and Nick. He had wanted to be near the sea, alone, with time to think.
There, Jake found himself walking along a white coral beach with foam-flecked waves rolling over his feet to cast up dirty bits and pieces of flotsam and jetsom. Staring at the unfamiliar surroundings with the breakers roaring in his ears like vexatious static that cut out the message his mind was trying to receive, the sight of a diving white tern had cut like a saber slash into his brain. He had blinked and covered his eyes with his hands, trying to awake from what he thought was a dream. But, opening his eyes and looking around him again, he knew it was no dream. It was like the sudden blazing illumination of a zen koan.
He knew then what must be done.
“Almost?” Elena said.
“You said it was an almost perfect day. Why almost?”
Elena watched him, smiling. She looked so happy and he loved her. He feared telling her, facing what he knew was to come.
“Because it has to end,” he told her.
“Well,” she said, stretching her lovely body lazily in the chair like a cat that’s been in the sun too long, “all good things do.”
Jake sighed. There was no use fighting it. He placed his hands on the arms of the chair and rose, straightening his tie and coughing needlessly. “Yes,” he said. He stood with his back to the rail, the sun a white glare behind him, watching her, not speaking.
She raised her head, shielding her eyes with one hand. “Jake, what is it? Is something wrong? Do come and sit down. The sun’s in my eyes. I can’t see you.”
He obeyed, coming over and crouching on the deck beside her. He lit a cigarette, holding the match up afterward, squinting at it as the flame burned down toward his fingers. “Do you want one?” he asked.
“No. You’re going to be burnt.”
He laughed. Flicking out the match, he cast it toward the sea. “I already have been.”
Elena leaned over, looking at him closely, brows knit and dark eyes glimmering as they dilated. “You’re behaving very strangely,” she said.
Jake sucked on the cigarette. The tobacco sizzled. A torrent of anguish swept over him like the sea assaulting a ship. “I’m going home,” he said, almost in a whisper. He stared out to sea, watching the yawl and the woman swimming beside it, unable to face her.
“Back to the states?”
“Why? I thought you were happy. You do love me, don’t you?”
He reached up and took her hand in his. He clasped her hand, so cool and soft, tightly in his as though it were a lifeline of security in the midst of the anguish he felt. “I do love you, and that’s why I must leave.”
“I don’t understand.”
“I don’t expect you do. I love you and it’s dirty and perverse and disloyal.”
“What? Disloyal to whom?”
“Joseph, for one. To myself, for another.”
She jerked her hand free, twisting around in the chair which squeaked like the rigging of a ship, putting her back to him. “Bastard,” she said. He couldn’t see her face, but he knew she was crying.
Jake stared at the yawl. The woman had finished her swim and was climbing back aboard on a ladder that had been lowered for her.
Elena faced him again, wiping at her cheek with the back of one hand. “I think I’ll have that cigarette now.”
Taking a final drag on his, he flicked it over the side. Then, he fished out another and lit it for her.
She took the cigarette, inhaling deeply. “You say you love me, but you’re leaving. Why? For Joseph?”
“Partly for Joseph.”
“You owe him nothing. He’s your employer. He pays you for the duties you perform.”
“Not for sleeping with his wife.”
“Pig!” She turned away again.
“Joseph is more than an employer,” he went on, aware she was listening, waiting for more of an explanation. “He’s my friend.”
“Do you deny it?”
“Of course not. I know you’re close. What of it?”
“I can’t hurt him.” He sat with head bowed, eyes tracing the water-raised grain in the wooden deck.
She turned now, eyes narrowed to slits, the color gone from her cheeks, lovely mouth contorted by a scowl as though the cigarette clenched by pursed lips had a sour taste. “Oh!” She spat out the word as though it were an epithet. “You can’t hurt your friend, eh? What about me? What am I?”
Jake raised his head, confronted her Medusa gaze. “You? You are my love, my soul, my everything.”
Elena laughed, a dry, sardonic laugh. “But, you would leave me.”
“Why? Joseph doesn’t know about us.”
“One day he will. I don’t want to be around then.”
She drew on the cigarette, exhaled a miasma of smoke in his direction. “I’m not depriving Joseph of anything. I go to his bed when he wants me. I’m his hostess. I’ve given him a son.”
“You spend his money.”
She dropped the cigarette to the deck, stamping it with her shoe. She shrugged her shoulders. “He has no complaint. He desires me to be well-dressed, to have things.”
“Does he desire you sleep with his employee, a man who is supposed to be his friend?”
Elena smiled, showing white, perfect teeth. “Joseph is old. He doesn’t need me as much as I need a man.”
Jake’s throat went dry. He rose, came around to the table and picked up the wine bottle, sloshing it. There was enough for half a glass. He gulped down the resinous dregs. Then, leaning over her, he asked, “And what does that make me?”
She arched her neck, looking up at him, squinting against the glare of the sun. “What do you mean?”
“I mean, am I just someone handy to have around when you have an itch?”
“Of course not. How can you say such a vile thing? I love you, Jake.”
“Then marry me.”
Elena shot him a shocked look. “Marry you? You think that wouldn’t hurt Joseph?”
“Not as much as this. It would be honest. It would hurt him and he would hate us. But, it would not be as dirty as this.”
She shook her head and took another cigarette from the pack in his pocket. He watched her as he lit it. “You’re a fool,” she said, blowing out the match.
“Yes,” he agreed.
Sucking hungrily on the cigarette, she said, “It’s impossible. What would we live on?”
“On what? From your writing? Jake, don’t you see, it’s better this way.”
“Yes. I’ve helped you with your work. Didn’t I help you get your poems published? Didn’t I? I’ll help you again .. when we get back to London.”
“Timeo Danaos et dona ferentes.”
“Oh! Always the classicist, aren’t you? Well, go! Go back to Pennsylvania and see if I bloody well care. What will you do? Dig coal with your father and brothers?”
“If need be.”
“You’re a fool.”
“So you’ve told me.”
He walked in a little circle, waiting for the barrage of curses and screams he expected would come next. When they didn’t, he strode to the rail and stood looking out at the yawl which had pulled anchor and was cutting out to sea. “Jake,” she said from behind him.
“Come and sit beside me.”
He knelt before her, placing a hand on her bare silken knee, gazing up at her dark eyes which were luminous now with tears. “Don’t go,” she whispered, placing her hand on his.
“Come back to London with us. I can help you. I can introduce you to the right people. You’ll have security and time to write. I’ll inspire you. Did I not inspire the poems?”
“You truly did.”
He sighed. “I can’t. It wouldn’t work, Elena.”
“It would. I love you.”
He hesitated, not wanting to say this final thing. The limpid brown eyes fixed on his. But, he had to say it. “No. You don’t love me, Elena. And you don’t love Joseph. You stay with him for his money. You don’t want me to have time to write. You want me to be a famous writer; one you’ve helped and inspired. It has nothing to do with what I want.”
Her face went ashen, the eyes narrowed to slits again; her lips moved, but she said nothing.
“You said Joseph didn’t suspect. You’re wrong. He knows. He told me. We’ve discussed you. We know you better than you think. You don’t love either of us, Elena. You’re like a bitch in heat and we are the hungry males chasing you.”
She slapped his hand from her knee, shot up from the chair, crossed to the rail and threw her cigarette over the side with a vehemence that startled him. She leaned on the rail, looking out to sea, her shoulders shaking. He knew she was crying but still he went on.
“Joseph won’t leave you. He’ll forgive you. He truly loves you. He knows I’m not the first and won’t be the last. He’ll stay, hoping someday you’ll love him. But, you never will.”
It was all said then and Jake felt drained and empty. It was silent between them and there was only the sound of the waves slapping the bow and the cries of the gulls feeding on the garbage thrown overboard from the yacht. She stood at the rail a long time, crying, as Jake smoked and waited.
Finally, she turned and faced him, her face blanched, a smear of mascara on one cheek. “Shall I tell the captain to take us in?” she asked in a tremulous voice.
“Pah-rah-kah-loh,” he said
Jake took her place at the rail when she had gone. Only the sail of the yawl was visible on the horizon now. The water over the side was flecked with splotches of glistening oil. A paper bag, its sodden sides split, spilled garbage as it pitched in a swell. The engines thrummed below deck and the Xanthippe shuddered.
Jake pitched his cigarette over the side and went back to his chair. Elena would not forget him, but some one else would take his place before long. He loved her and it hurt. Still, he felt infinitely cleaner now.