I am not saying Manaar changed everything. He didn’t. I stumble around the world for still another year before I finally find myself at a corner desk in an Athens library, looking down at a medical school application. In between Manaar and the application are the two weeks I spent in Damascus, of which I have virtually no memory other than the grinning faces of two women with heavily lined eyes and a gold tooth each. Or the three months in Cairo in the basement of a ramshackle tenement run by a hashish-addicted landlord. I spend Thalia’s money riding buses in Iceland, tagging along with a punk band in Munich. In 1977, I break an elbow at an antinuclear protest in Bilbao.
But in my quiet moments, in those long rides in the back of a bus or the bed of a truck, my mind always circles back to Manaar. Thinking of him, of the anguish of his final days, and my own helplessness in the face of it, makes everything I have done, everything I want to do, seem as unsubstantial as the little vows you make yourself as you’re going to sleep, the ones you’ve already forgotten by the time you wake up.
One hundred nineteen … one hundred twenty.
I drop the shutter.
One night at the end of that summer, I learned that Madaline was leaving for Athens and leaving Thalia with us, at least for a short while.
“Just for a few weeks,” she said.
We were having dinner, the four of us, a dish of white bean soup that Mamá and Madaline had prepared together. I glanced across the table at Thalia to see if I was the only one on whom Madaline had sprung the news. It appeared I was. Thalia was calmly feeding spoonfuls into her mouth, lifting her mask just a bit with each trip of the spoon. By then, her speech and eating didn’t bother me anymore, or at least no more than watching an old person eat through ill-fitting dentures, like Mamá would years later.
Madaline said she would send for Thalia after she had shot her film, which she said should wrap well before Christmas.
“Actually, I will bring you all to Athens,” she said, her face rinsed with the customary cheer. “And we will go to the opening together! Wouldn’t that be marvelous, Markos? The four of us, dressed up, waltzing into the theater in style?”
I said it would be, though I had trouble picturing Mamá in a fancy gown or waltzing into anything.
Madaline explained how it would work out just fine, how Thalia could resume her studies when school opened in a couple of weeks—at home, of course—with Mamá. She said she would send us postcards and letters, and pictures of the film set. She said more, but I didn’t hear much of it. What I was feeling was enormous relief and outright giddiness. My dread of the coming end of summer was like a knot in my belly, winding tighter with each passing day as I steeled myself against the approaching farewell. I woke every morning now eager to see Thalia at the breakfast table, to hear the bizarre sound of her voice. We barely ate before we were out climbing trees, chasing each other through the barley fields, plowing through the stalks and letting out war cries, lizards scattering away from our feet. We stashed make-believe treasures in caves, found spots on the island with the best and loudest echoes. We shot photos of windmills and dovecotes with our pinhole camera and took them to Mr. Roussos, who developed them for us. He even let us into his darkroom and taught us about different developers, fixers, and stop baths.
The night of Madaline’s announcement, she and Mamá shared a bottle of wine in the kitchen, Madaline doing most of the drinking, while Thalia and I were upstairs, playing a game of tavli. Thalia had the mana position and had already moved half her checkers onto her home board.
“She has a lover,” Thalia said, rolling the dice.
I jumped. “Who?”
“ ‘Who?’ he says. Who do you think?”
I had learned, over the course of the summer, to read Thalia’s expressions through her eyes, and she was looking at me now like I was standing on the beach asking where the water was. I tried to recover quickly. “I know who,” I said, my cheeks burning. “I mean, who’s the … you know …” I was a twelve-year-old boy. My vocabulary didn’t include words like lover.
“Can’t you guess? The director.”
“I was going to say that.”
“Elias. He’s something. He plasters his hair down like it’s the 1920s. He has a thin little mustache too. I guess he thinks it makes him look rakish. He’s ridiculous. He thinks he’s a great artist, of course. Mother does too. You should see her with him, all timid and submissive, like she needs to bow to him and pamper him because of his genius. I can’t understand how she doesn’t see it.”
“Is Aunt Madaline going to marry him?”
Thalia shrugged. “She has the worst taste in men. The worst.” She shook the dice in her hands, seemed to reconsider. “Except for Andreas, I suppose. He’s nice. Nice enough. But, of course, she’s leaving him. It’s always the bastards she falls for.”
“You mean, like your father?”
She frowned a little. “My father was a stranger she met on her way to Amsterdam. At a train station during a rainstorm. They spent one afternoon together. I have no idea who he is. And neither does she.”
“Oh. I remember she said something about her first husband. She said he drank. I just assumed …”
“Well, that would be Dorian,” Thalia said. “He was something too.” She moved another checker onto her home board. “He used to beat her. He could go from nice and pleasant to furious in a blink. Like the weather, how it can change suddenly? He was like that. He drank most of the day, didn’t do much but lie around the house. He got real forgetful when he drank. He’d leave the water running, for instance, and flood the house. I remember he forgot to turn off the stove once and almost burned everything down.”
She made a little tower with a stack of chips. Worked quietly for a while straightening it.
“The only thing Dorian really loved was Apollo. All the neighborhood kids were scared of him—of Apollo, I mean. And hardly any of them had even seen him; they’d only heard his bark. That was enough for them. Dorian kept him chained in the back of the yard. Fed him big slabs of lamb.”
Thalia didn’t tell me any more. I pictured it easily enough, though. Dorian passed out, the dog forgotten, roaming the yard unchained. An open screen door.
“How old were you?” I asked in a low voice.
Then I asked the question that had been on my mind since the beginning of summer. “Isn’t there something that … I mean, can’t they do—”