No woman knows the power she holds at fifteen until it’s gone.
Long, loose S of the lower back. Inchoate cheekbone,
bracelet of wrist. Soap-soft, uncertain fingertip. Dumb
curve of the bottom lip, stunned to mute by its own prettiness.
I wore a shell-pink dress with a boat neck collar, my long hair
back and up. Limbs dark from days spent propped beside
an ocean blue as eyes of boys we planned to meet.
My best friend Arianne read magazines out loud about
what men want most and whether toothpaste helps bad skin
while we sipped gin and tonics pilfered from the house
her parents kept for weekends out of Athens, though
they never came. We claimed their bougainvillea-splattered deck
with pasta feasts for twenty-five of Arianne’s close friends
and left the dishes in what once had been a sink to go out dancing.
Outside the ocean glowed, air dissolved like sugar grains
and even widows sleeping in their black nightgowns dreamed
of the boy with bedspring curls whose first kiss felt like drowning.
That summer everyone was young. In the afternoons I’d wander
down the hill to buy a peach, rothakino, the word I memorized
to ask for fruit so huge and ripe each peach I’ve eaten since
has rushed that summer back. The mythically wrinkled man
who sold them in his hut liked to repeat, rothakino?
to see me blush. Up at the house we halved the pink-gold flesh
and pondered ways to live our lives like movie plots.
Winona Ryder’s latest apple-cheeked display of angst
had, in a rage against her mother, drunk too much
and in her mother’s makeup teetered up the steeple steps
where yes, the boy with devastating patience was just waiting
to complete her. The church bell, stars, and haloed lantern
he had lit seemed so exactly right that nothing ever need
come after. So when a charmer named Alexandros held out
a lime-tipped gin and tonic at the discotheque and told me
I was beautiful, I smiled mute assent and three nights later
heard myself explain I would go all the way.
No poem could invent the naked woman I watched wade
into the moon-marked water when I made this necessary claim
until I couldn’t see her anymore. Even in her bone-white flesh
as firm as bark he’d leaned me up against “to talk” I knew
she wasn’t real to anyone but me. And that the pebble-trail
of moonlight she was trying to apprehend would steadily
elude her. It hurt, the way a hip might hit a table in an unlit room:
one quick sharp pain spread slow through the rest of the body.
Then it was over. Mosquito netting swept around the bed,
and just beyond the widened windowsill that sometimes Arianne
camped on, the ocean stayed completely still. (The next night
I would glimpse a hand-sized scorpion on that sill, and watch it
slip into the wall just seconds from her neck’s blithe contact
with the sheet.) When Ari’s older brothers stumbled in to ask
would I please join them for a drink, Alexandros’ mouth above me
yanked into a smile as if connected by a chain to the boys’ laughs.
They must have left me there to dress, though all I recollect
is how the tiles shone on every countertop and square of floor
after I cleaned that filthy house for hours. Until the sun came up.
Alexandros returned, to offer dinner and protection rights
he thought he’d earned. The boys and Ari watched while I refused,
and heard the offer quickly turn to some excuse about a girl in Athens
he had left behind. I didn’t mind. I don’t remember what I said,
or how I felt beyond relief, or why I made the bet with Arianne
that in our last remaining days of summer break I could seduce
every man named Alexandros on the island. Or what the stakes were.
This is a story about a story. In two weeks I would be sixteen.
This was always a story. I lived each moment of that August
just to tell it, though I never told. The scorpion’s quick flight,
the moonlit girl, and how I didn’t sleep all night were facts
I stored as IOUs, to be exchanged for Life, that locked-up jewel,
much later on. They were my planned escape, before I knew
that time lets fall from trap doors more than anyone would wish.
Or that a story’s true as anything. For every fact there is a sly
infinitude of truths, no less for how they contradict. I’ve left
so many versions out simply to say the word for peach,
and that my hair was long. For instance: Alexandros was deaf.
He read my lips, and clipped the edges off the adjectives
he whispered in my ear. Or this: the year that followed Syros
I would sleep with men whose names I didn’t know. A story’s true
as anything. Fifteen years old. The body still belongs to you.
Not yet a currency with which you pay your way down streets,
and after years will give up like a coat for warmth, or restlessness,
or what small muscle love becomes. You want to tell the ones
that ask for more, I’d give that too if it were mine. Maybe it never was.
Maybe I lost only those afternoons of peaches and dry heat.
But stories have no stakes, so I don’t know. And those slow,
sweet-skinned months when I assumed the moments
I’d accrued would all add up somehow to gloriously cohere,
have disappeared to one dim memory of a room
I never entered. Shadow of a boy’s face on the pillow.
Of stone-smooth hips and blindly perfect breasts I watched
with gentle, distant awe, as if my own, and not some
stranger’s gaze, were separate from, and longing to come back.
from Houses Are Fields (Baton Rouge, LA: Louisiana State University Press, 2009).