Alex sat alone, O’Hare International Terminal Five, waiting to board for Athens. He eyed travelers wheeling suitcases or sifting through newspapers and gossip magazines. The music pumping through his headphones was almost enough to drown out boarding calls and departing planes. Almost enough to disconnect him from everything even more than he’d become accustomed to. A blonde stewardess passed, heels bouncing off the tile, legs pressing against her navy skirt with each stride. Only a few months back, Alex would have fantasized about her: exchanging flirtatious glances over the drink cart at 35,000 feet and then sneaking into the lavatory to join the Mile-High Club. But that would require him to have a pulse; to give half a shit.
Over the muffled sound of an announcement being made, he suddenly heard someone call his name. He turned. There – his hair tucked under a red bandana, backpack straps tugging at his shoulders, an assortment of necklaces draped over his t-shirt, from a cross to a peace symbol to a Chinese character – stood Tommy Banos, his old high school buddy. The Life of the Party. Voted Most Likely to Climb Mt. Everest. Alex pulled off his headphones.
“How crazy is this?” Tommy said. They clasped hands. “You going to Greece too?”
“I am, yeah.”
“This is unreal.”
Passengers began collecting their belongings. Pre-boarding was beginning. Tommy checked the seat number on his ticket. “What’s your plan out there? You got a plan? We should hang out.”
“We should,” Alex said.
He didn’t mean it. Not that he had anything against Tommy. He’d always liked Tommy. But then he would have to talk. And if he talked, Tommy would ask questions, and Alex would be forced to talk about things he didn’t want to talk about.
“Unbelievable,” Tommy said, staring at him, hands on hips. “This is going to be wild, right? It’s going to be off the chain.”
Alex’s mom had bought the plane ticket and made the arrangements. “You should get away from here for the summer,” she’d said. “It’ll be good for you.”
“Look, I’m fine, Mom. Seriously.”
“None of us are fine, sweetheart. How could we be?” Within a matter of weeks, the pain had aged her, the skin on her neck folded like curtain pleats.
Alex hadn’t cried at the funeral. He remembered his uncle telling him, “Be strong for your mom. You’re the man of the house now.” He went back to school two days later and finished his first year of college. Between studying, he’d secretly search the library shelves for books about the meaning of life and the long-term damage a loss like that would have, convinced there was something wrong with him.
He dreamt of his dad – dreams that were too real to be dreams: Dad on the living room couch in his blue cotton pajamas, snacking on cashews and watching CNN, looking at Alex and laughing at him like he’d gone mad – adamant that he’d never died, that he’d been alive all along. Alex wanted the dreams to stop. He wanted to feel normal again. Would he ever feel normal again?
There were days he’d imagine himself in Greece discovering his dad hidden in his native village or in a seaside town. That was half the reason he even agreed to go. But what the hell would he do all summer with his retired grandma and grandpa and only the clanking of goat bells and singing of cicadas to entertain him?
As the plane surged down the runway and lifted from the ground, Alex was sure the engines would fail or that birds would get sucked into them. And that would be it. The End. He pressed his nose against the cabin window and squeezed the arm rests with both hands. When the clouds finally parted and offered a glimpse of Chicago receding into the distance, he loosened his grip.
He looked ahead for Tommy. Had he heard about his dad? He hadn’t seen him in a year, but word always spread, didn’t it? Tommy’s mom had died of cancer sophomore year. Alex had just remembered that. But the circumstances were different. She hadn’t wanted it, hadn’t inflicted it upon herself and her family.
The “Fasten Seat Belt” sign went off. Tommy shuffled down the aisle behind the stewardess and her cart, a miniature whiskey and Coke in hand, until he got to Alex’s row.
"So what's up, my man? What have you been up to?"
“Same shit. You know, school, all that stuff. You? How about you?”
“I actually took the year off and chilled, did some traveling. I was in the Dominican, then Puerto Rico.” He shared stories of ziplining and hiking and surfing.
Alex poured himself a mini Disaronno on the rocks. Underage drinking: one of the perks of international travel. A swig of it warmed his chest.
Tommy filled him in on all the local gossip. The snobby girls from high school who’d gotten fat. Marty Soldberg who’d gone prematurely bald. Frank Lamb who’d partied his way out of college before the first semester had even started. What had Alex been so worried about? Tommy didn’t know about his dad. Tommy didn't care.
“So, anyway, I’m hitting Mykonos first,” Tommy said. “You have to come with me. My boy’s spinning at Cavo Paradiso. Hottest club out there.” He took off his bandana and raked his hair back into a ponytail.
“I don’t know. I’m supposed to see some family –”
“Awe, c’mon. Have you ever been to Mykonos?”
“Dude, the beaches. The topless chicks. You gotta party there at least once in your life.”
A wave of turbulence rocked the plane. Alex stared out at the wing.
“We’d have a crazy time together,” Tommy said. “Think of all the fun we used to have. Playing b-ball, going to parties, Mr. What’s-His-Nut’s shop class.” The lights in the cabin dimmed. Tommy raised his mini whiskey bottle. “C’mon. To Mykonos.”
What was the alternative? The village, with the goats and the old folks?
Alex poured himself another Disaronno and finally raised his glass. Okay, whatever, to a week of pseudo-normalcy. To a week of oblivion, right? “Okay, all right, to Mykonos.”
Alex and Tommy arrived at the port in Mykonos via a ferry from Piraeus. They stood huddled like cattle, an armpit in Alex’s face, waiting for the ship to anchor. When they disembarked, a mob of hotel owners swarmed them with signs for rooms to rent. They settled on a middle-aged goon with a few days facial growth, smoking against his moped. “My friends, you’ll never want to leave Mykonos. It’s fucking paradise.”
The three piled onto the moped, Tommy behind the hotel owner, Alex hanging onto Tommy’s shoulders. Orthodox crosses dotted the edge of the road as they rode uphill. The mountainside, weathered and harsh, glared at them.
The small hotel was in the heart of town, in one of the many claustrophobic alleyways, steps away from the nightclubs and tavernas and shops. An endless stream of tourists and stray cats passed through. From nearby homes, the sounds of conversations and plates clanking in kitchen sinks could be heard. A priest on a donkey ambled by with a handful of shopping bags.
Alex dropped his suitcase onto the bed. “I just want to sleep.”
“Brother, we've got the rest of eternity to sleep. There's work to be done.”
Tommy led the way to Paradise Beach. Bars lined the waterfront. The music was as relentless as the sun in the wide-open sky. It was hard to find a free spot in the sand to lay their towels. They played volleyball with a gang from São Paolo, rode a banana boat through the turquoise waters with a group of Brits. They grinded on two drunken Aussies atop the beach bar.
Thoughts – nagging thoughts – periodically tried to surface like boiling water under the lid of a pot: the last time Alex was on Greek soil was with his dad, the last time he watched someone roll the dice on a backgammon board. A shot of Ouzo proved a temporary fix. So did the music cranked up and blaring through his headphones. But Alex still caught himself looking for him.
When they carved through the winding labyrinth of cobblestone alleys, past white-washed homes with laundry hanging from balconies, he’d scan the crowd. Maybe none of it had happened. Maybe his dad was alive somewhere; right there in Mykonos, at a jewelry shop buying Mom a silver necklace. Or at a café drinking Metaxa and eating cuts of lemon-soaked sausage.
At night, Alex and Tommy partied at Cavo Paradiso until the sun came up, dancing madly with their new friends from across the globe and downing shots until they couldn’t see straight. They slept until noon and then stumbled back to the beach to do it all over again. That was what the next five days looked like. A blur. A fog, intoxicated from all the booze and sun. Nobody there knew Alex or his history. Nobody cared. It was paradise.
The last time Alex saw his dad was when he’d come home for a long-weekend in February. His younger brother, John, had a basketball game. Their dad was his old self, hair neatly combed back and to the side, half watching the game, half yucking it up in the bleachers with the other dads, his lost laugh making a rare appearance.
“Dad seems good,” Alex said to his mom. “He seems all right.”
Whenever he came home, Alex would see his dad pacing around the house, scribbling down notes on post-its, muttering about how bad the financial outlook was, about his fear of losing his buildings, the house, his family. Mom had reassured him they’d be fine. His financial advisor did too.
“You don’t understand,” he’d say. “Nobody understands.” He’d been depressed before – between long periods of success and stability – but never like this.
That night, Alex’s dad came into his bedroom and laid down next to him. The mattress dipped. This is awkward, Alex remembered thinking. It was weird. But then again, everything about his dad had been weird in those last days. His dad used to hop into bed with him when he was a kid, sure. But now Alex was in college, a man.
“You doing well in school?” he asked. His breath smelled like scotch.
“Yeah, I think so. I mean, it’s hard, you know, but yeah.”
“What happened with that girlfriend of yours? She hasn’t come around all weekend.”
“We broke up actually. The long-distance thing. Kinda sucks.”
“You’ll be okay. You’ve always had a good head on your shoulders. Always been a strong kid, just like your mom. Pathei mathos. That’s what my dad used to tell me.”
“What does that mean?”
“Pathei mathos. There’s learning in suffering.”
Alex and Tommy laid under the blinding midday sun, sipping on Piña Coladas and chain-smoking Gauloises. Hidden behind sunglasses, they leered at the throng of topless tourists. Alex could fry bacon on his chest, but he was too mellowed out to move. Tommy nodded toward a coffee-colored brunette rubbing lotion into her thighs. “I’ve got to tap that before we leave.”
“Good luck, buddy. Too bad you don’t speak Portuguese.”
“I speak the language of love, brother.”
A light breeze picked up and temporarily cooled the sweat on Alex’s skin. “I wish I could just stay here. Never go back. Paint henna tattoos on chicks all day. Rent out jet skis.”
“Don’t be fooled,” Tommy said. “This isn’t real life. All these tourists will be gone in two months. Nothing lasts forever.”
One group left and another arrived, dropping their bags in the sand and planting their umbrella.
“I’ve been to a bunch of places this year, you know,” Tommy said, “but I always end up back home. For better or worse, it is what it is.”
On their last night in Mykonos, during his routine three-hour nap between Paradise Beach and Cavo Paradiso, it happened again. A dream too real to be a dream. A visitation. Alex was with John at the Mykonos port; they were kicking a soccer ball back and forth. A cruise ship crept in, then docked. In the middle of the tourists pouring out, Mom and Dad appeared. John kicked the ball his way; it rolled into the water as Alex abandoned it and ran to his parents.
“Where’ve you been?” he asked.
“Where have we been?” his dad said. He laughed. “We’ve been here, in Mykonos.”
“What do you mean? You didn’t kill yourself? You’re not dead?”
“Of course I’m not dead. Nobody ever dies.”
Alex awoke, sweating. It was never going to end. He’d never be normal again, would he, no matter how well he tried to fake it? He’d always be looking, always be haunted. He stared at the painting on the wall of a shaded Mykonos courtyard that was far more tranquil than anything he’d experienced in real-world Mykonos. He felt the bass rising from nearby bars. Tommy was in the shower, singing. Alex threw on a t-shirt and shorts and escaped into the labyrinth.
He bumped his way through the crowd of tourists shopping for postcards and miniature statues of gods with erect penises. Was his dad in an art gallery, picking up a sculpture of Poseidon for the foyer? Was he at a taverna sipping on local wine and feasting on fresh clams? Alex kept marching, out of the town and past the famous windmills. He looked back at Little Venice and its cluster of bars extending out over the water like they were threatening to leap.
He finally stumbled onto a tiny white church in the middle of nowhere. The kind of place he’d find answers. He tried to open the doors, but they were locked. He pounded on them. There was silence. He laid in the dirt and stared up at the stars peppering the sky. He had to keep looking.
He made his way back down to the beach, passed stray dogs combing for food or friends. He tore off his t-shirt and raced into the water, stomping through it until his feet could no longer touch the sand. The water was thick as blood and he kept swimming, stabbing through the surface, as far out as he could before sinking his head below. He aimed down and began clawing towards the bottom. What had happened to his dad, his king? Was the pain that unbearable? Did his dad really believe they’d be better off without him?
If Alex forced himself to stay under long enough, he’d drown. And that would be it. The End. He’s never coming back! He’s dead! a voice cried. But you’re not! His ears started to hurt, to ring. He kept clawing, though, until he reached the sea floor. He dug at it and dug, until he had no more fight. No place left to go. When he finally surrendered, the buoyancy propelled him back to the top. His head burst out and he gasped for air, chest heaving, legs kicking to stay afloat, waves rolling over his shoulders. He looked up at the lemon-colored moon painting a white streak down the sea’s back and he wept. You’re still here! the voice said. He’s dead, but you’re still here! The water slowly began carrying him back towards the shore.
It was Tommy – again calling his name, awakening him. Tommy, the go-getter. Voted Most Likely to Rescue a Cat from a Tree or Run into a Burning Building. He was with two blondes who were scurrying barefoot in the sand, heels dangling from their hands.
“You’re alive!” Tommy said.
“I was looking all over the place for you. Thought something happened. Anyway, stay there. We’re coming in. We’re skinny-dipping.”
The girls both slid out of their sun dresses and ran towards the water, the moonlight illuminating their tanned skin. They laughed and yelled at each other in Swedish or Danish or whatever. It didn’t matter. Alex watched them, perfectly naked, splashing through the water. This isn’t happening, he thought. It was the most unimaginable of events, but it felt more real than anything he’d experienced in months.
The next morning, Alex and Tommy regretfully bid farewell to the Scandinavian girls and headed back to the port. “Stick and move,” Tommy said. “Nothing lasts forever.”
The sea was smooth as olive oil. An old fisherman knee-deep in the water tossed in his net, an elderly woman went for an early morning swim. The sun was beginning to rise and light the houses resting along the mountainside. Alex and Tommy climbed aboard a ferry back to Athens, before heading back into the seemingly endless ocean.
“That place is wild,” Tommy said, staring at the island as it shrunk into another speck in the sea. “Aren’t you glad you came with me to Mykonos?”
Alex nodded. He eyed his fellow passengers, his fellow party-goers. They were scattered across the ship, on plastic deck chairs and hallway floors, t-shirts for pillows, bags safely tied to ankles. Some of them were probably done, going back home. Others were likely resting up for their next adventure, their next surprise.
"So what's on your agenda now?" Tommy asked.
"Think I'm going to go my family's village for a bit."
Tommy took a sip of his frappé. "Cool, you should meet me in Ios afterwards. The Brazilians will be there. It'll be off the hook. Pra caramba!" He was on a roll, like waves against the Mykonos shore.
"You'll see me again. We'll meet up somewhere for sure." Alex knew he should probably make the most of the summer. Once he got home, he'd have school, family, responsibilities. Life. He opened up the backgammon board between them, collected the dice, and began setting up the checkers. "You want to play?" he said. "Let's play."
About the Author: Steve Karas lives in Chicago with his wife and daughter. His short stories have appeared in Little Fiction, Bartleby Snopes, Xenith and elsewhere. You can visit his website at stevekaras.wordpress.com and follow him on Twitter @ Steve_Karas.