FICTION: Which Way to Ithaka? by Sam Reese

For a moment, everything around me was atremble. Desk, chair, pencils, mug, the framed posters on the office walls (sunrise behind the pyramids, sunset over Santorini)—all hummed and vibrated. Even the glasses quivered on my nose. Long after the chatter stopped, the air still shook a little.

Putting down my book, I lifted myself up from the low stoop I’d settled into across my desk. I listened. Then I sighed. Just another train. When the familiar call came from the back office, I took some petty change from the first drawer and flipped the ‘open’ sign to ‘closed’ on the door as I went out.

Waiting for the drinks, I noticed I had started to pick at the skin around my nails again. I had been too occupied with the passing faces to notice—until I drew blood, that is. Of course, no one there looked worried by the periodic jolts. Travel Odyssey is in the corner of a shopping center above an underground station. For some reason—poor design, I’d say—certain arrivals and departures cause the whole office to shake (even more than the surrounding shops). I’d long grown used to these.

But today, for just a moment, it had felt like the start of something more. When the drinks were ready, I headed for the office, then, hesitating, doubled back past the café to the doors outside. A little sunshine touched my cheek. The air smelled sweet, like rain. Otherwise the world seemed quiet—still.

I left my own drink at the desk (not too close to the edge), and paused outside the doorway at the back. My boss only comes in sporadically, and when he isn’t here, I like to leave his door ajar. He’s a little strange, and his tastes run toward excess; his standing coffee order is an affogato, and if I’m honest, I can’t stand to watch the way he shovels down the drowned ice cream. But for the same reason, I guess, he has also hung across one wall a painting so large it almost fills up the room. He told me, proudly, once, that it had been a gift from the artist. Clearly, I had thought, the artist understood his tastes.

The painting showed a sprawling, European garden, like one I’d seen in photographs of Monet’s house at Giverny. Up close, you see the brush strokes clearly, but from a little distance the scene looks real enough to enter.

My favourite detail is the path. It starts at the bottom of the frame and winds its way behind a spray of rhododendrons. From my desk, with the door open, all that I can see is this path winding through the flowers to somewhere just out of sight. Whenever I look at it, I can’t help but find myself escaping out that path, towards something more.

But not, I thought, today. Knocking once, I pushed open the door and, ignoring the painting, handed my boss his drink. He hadn’t shaved well—little patches clung beneath his jaw—and at first he wouldn’t meet my eye. He nodded, absent-mindedly. I turned to go before he started inhaling his drink, but a cough drew me up short.

A quiet day, he mumbled, So a good time, I think, for you to run down with this. He handed me a dossier of travel documents, which I recognized at once. The ‘Persian Heritage’ tour was coming up, and he clearly wanted me to drop these with the airline. I smiled, said, Of course, and left as quickly as I could without seeming to run. I almost forgot my drink.

On the train, I sat alone. Since I started there, I’ve grown more comfortable like that. But even with my book, I felt a little brighter just having people around. This might sound strange, but perhaps you’ll understand: I felt just that bit firmer—less ephemeral—than I did in the office.

Almost no one comes in person, since the office moved.  The clientele don’t help. Travel Odyssey offers “Educational Adventures for the Over-Fifties,” with many of our tour groups composed of geriatrics. One representative tends to call up on behalf of a whole gummy gang, and so begins a slow process of negotiation. At first the office was a refuge, somewhere to escape from what had happened. Now I savour any chance to get out.

Maybe this will seem naïve, but when I first applied, almost in desperation, I had felt a quiet fire. In my imagination, a travel agency ought to be a bustling operation, fueling its clients’ aching dream to see the world. Instead, I’d found my hours spent either blaring blurbs across a phoneline—blurbs that I had written about places to which I’d never been—or tweaking and massaging our model itineraries.

That’s my happy place: scrolling through the photos sent in by the local guides, finding the perfect adjective to describe a ruined city, a hidden grotto, an ancient dream. I’ll happily give details to our half-deaf clientele about cuisine at a taverna I have only eaten with my eyes, the pounding drumbeat of a dance felt inside my mind. But things can look a little strange, I’ve found, if you spend too long wrapped in imagined smells.

So I leaned into the lumpy seat with something close to relish. I let the dull vibrations from the window stir the edges of my arm, run up into my jaw and buzz behind my eyes. I didn’t so much listen to the gossip behind me as let it wash over, felt rather than heard. And around me the train moved beneath the earth.

To start with, I was puzzled. I simply did not recognize the voice. It echoed faintly at the edges of the atrium, and having just stepped out of the lift, I had to swivel around to try and find its source. The airline has its office in a tall building overlooking that new waterfront development, and the wide lobby glints with polished chrome. My eyes could not keep up with the reflected shadows in the polished surfaces. At last she caught my eye.

She’s taller now than I remembered—much taller than me—though just as self-assured as when we were small. Her words skittered out, faster than her mouth could move. And she seemed genuinely happy to see me. I found this really touching—I can’t remember the last time someone looked at me like that. All the same, I noticed, or imagined, something false about the way that she embraced me once she got up close. The kisses on the cheeks felt like a defence.

Still, if nothing else, I’m always happy for an excuse to extend my errands. So we found a coffee cart, she bought us both a drink, and we walked down to the harbor. At first we moved around each other stiffly, and when Zoe grazed my waist with her hand, I felt myself grow rigid. But as the sea came into view, she asked, Which way to Ithaka? And there was nothing distant in her eyes.

We must have been twelve, the last time we’d seen each other. There was a point, before that, when we’d been inseparable. Zoe had even stayed with us for six months or so when we were eight. Before then, we’d been friends, but now we were together from breakfast to dinner, next to one another both in school and sleep.

The best moments were the quiet ones. The two of us would lie down on our stomachs across my bed, leafing through illustrated books of Greek mythology. Slowly we’d slip between the pages, into a world bigger and stranger than our little town.

That private world spilled out into the rest of our lives. When we walked to school, we flew, escaping gorgons; when we splashed in the pool, we were sailors on the Argo, searching for the Golden Fleece. At dinnertime, we were enormous Cyclopes, devouring tiny Odysseus-sausages with glee.

After Zoe’s mother moved away later that year, she still came back to visit, at first a few times a year. Each time she felt further from me. The last time we had seen each other, the journey was reversed: I had gone to her, staying in the city for a long weekend. By then, we were both coming into puberty, and looked as much like strangers as we felt.

But now, with a wide view across the harbor, in the reflected light of the blue-green sea, Zoe talked to me as if it had been yesterday that we’d seen each other last, not half our lifetime ago—as if we were lying on my bed together, sharing legendary tales.

And, compared to mine, Zoe’s life seemed mythical.

Like me, she’d studied English at university, but where I had come to the city, she had gone across the sea. The scholarship, the internship—each leg of her journey had carried her to deeper water. As she described her new scriptwriting, though, I saw a little of the friend that I remembered. She quickly built up steam.

I draft each piece of speech on a cue card by hand, she carefully admitted, Like we did that summer. I laughed, and said, You loved the idea of proportions! She blushed a little and said, more to the ocean than me, Proportion is the entranceway. She was always coming up with stuff like that. It made me smile, but I wonder now, was this where I went wrong?

What about you, she asked, prickling, What have you been doing since you graduated?

That quickly shut me up. Of course, I didn’t want to tell her about the incident. So I described my job, but defensively. From the way I worded it, I thought perhaps she might imagine that I led the tours myself. I hoped that was what she’d think.

We’d both grown shy again. It felt like we were looking at each other from across a faultline. After a pause, she showed me photographs of her on location. Trying to ignore the exotic destinations, I focused on her. Her face seemed different, longer, more mature. I felt a tingle in my own cheeks, round with puppy fat. My voice was carried on the wind. At least her style was the same as when we were kids. Block colours and simple designs. T-shirt and skirt; cardigan and scarf.

Of course, she was modest about it all. Just the right shade of abashed. Maybe that is what made it impossible to say no when she invited me to visit her on set. They were filming up the coast, and before I really knew what I was doing, I had agreed to take a train that Saturday morning. Someone would be waiting at the station to collect me. Before I knew it, she was waving at me from a distant shore.

I couldn’t sleep that night. Propped up in my futon, nestled amongst pillows with a steaming mug of tea, I was swathed in bluish light. The far wall shows the Aegean, an endless stretch of sapphire streaked with jagged lightning-lines of light, and if you could have seen me then, you might have thought that I was underwater, too.

What made it worse—the photographs, the travel, the adventure—was that, beneath the surface, each entry on her blog was essentially same. With each new destination, Zoe found a way to draw the same conclusions, have the same “wonderful time” with the same kind of cool, unique people. It was all polished surface, reflecting shadows back at me of someone only dimly familiar.

This did not make the site any less popular. It was hardly a relief to find that her writing credits were not quite what she made them seem. If anything, it made me more ashamed of my own little lies. And though her résumé may not have been so impressive, her following sure was. I could not understand—why were all these people so hooked on such generic posts? I took another sip of tea, and kept scrolling through. Each time I thought I’d brought the boulder to the top, the page refreshed with a new slope of posts.

My phone flashed a storm warning at me, but in the faint darkness I could not make out much of the sky. Not many people head up the coast this early on the weekend, so it was no surprise that my carriage was empty. I turned up my music (Sun Ra’s “Bassism”) and leant my cheek against the glass. Moments like this, I try to picture myself from above: early morning; empty train; somber face; cool jazz; rolling bass; pink light on the ocean.

It never lasts. There’s always something else—the feeling of condensation on your skin, the lingering smell of urine and body odour, the taste of old coffee at the back of your mouth. An image is too small a space to live in for long.

I went back to my book.

At the station, I was not sure what I should be looking for. I’d never been sent a driver before. I imagined something old-fashioned (maybe a peaked cap), so perhaps that’s why I didn’t notice the harassed teen pacing next to a small van until he bawled my name across the empty forecourt of the station.

It wasn’t so much a sense of indignity—after all, I was too pleased that I did not have to shell out for a cab to worry about squeezing in between crates of supplies—as it was a sense of recognition. Not just that Zoe might be playing the same game as I had by the shore, but that there might be some deeper reason she had asked me out here. All the same, when we pulled up to the set, she was waiting for me.

She looked effortlessly cool. Just the way she stood made me feel small: no picking at her hands, no gazing around her. Then the way that she dismissed the driver—pleasant, but superior—showed her command of several more tiers of social skill than I would ever manage. Smooth ride? She asked. I laughed and said, I pity the poor canisters of film. I did not miss the way she narrowed her eyes at that.

Still, members of the cast smiled at her as we passed. Most of them were sweating already, wrapped in linen togas or swathed in layers of improbable drapery. Confidentially, she whispered their names after each had passed. I couldn’t bring myself to tell her that I didn’t recognize a single one. All the while, my gaze kept wandering up the hill.

Beyond the shanty town of trailers, on a low clifftop that overlooked the sea, stood the outline of a dream. It was a Greek town, with its pillared temples and tall statues deeply shadowed against the rising sun. I could not look away. Someone called to Zoe, and she went aside to hold a brief, muttered debate. I didn’t catch a word—I was too transfixed by the promise that lay ahead—but she looked unhappy when she returned to lead me on. Yet, I’ll give her this: she tried to shrug it off. I saw then why she’d brought me here. We were both eight again.

Looking back, I should have been prepared for disappointment. Yes, the outline of the buildings had set my heart racing, But the costumes were all wrong, and even in the distance there were gaps in the façade.

For most people, when they think of Ancient Greece, it’s a smooth whiteness that they see. Naked marble pillars, slow and even debate, tragic drama played out at a stately, dusty pace.

But when I close my eyes, I see a riot of colour. I see buildings and statues painted in bright oranges and blues; I hear voices shouting, goat cries mixed with girls’ full-throated song; I can taste the full bouquet of the salty, bitter, streets—a world that bursts with flavour. It is no broken vase, no leftover shadow frozen in a measured pose, but Bollywood: noise, movement, life.

So maybe you can understand why, as we walked through the town’s lifeless gateway, I let out a little sigh; why, as we passed frames of buildings that showed plywood at the back, spraypainted marble at the front, I began to drag my feet. Why, when she turned to me, let her grin slowly slip, and asked, What’s wrong? I could only say, I expected—expected something more.

For almost a minute she stood and looked at me. The noise from the trailers was carried away on a wind from the sea. It tasted salty, and it beat against my eyelids. I thought that I could hear a bird sing in the distance. As I met her eyes, pink and squinting in the wind, everything felt close to collapse. I thought that the earth might move, the plates might shift and close the strait that I saw opening between us.

She laughed at me. Through wind-misted eyes it looked for a moment as if her hair rose up like a fighting cat. You’re not the only one who’s disappointed. Now her voice sounded completely cold. She paused, then finished by saying, I had expected so much more. When I heard the story about why you cut short your degree…

That last time I had seen her we had just started high school. Her mother had picked me up halfway to the city, swapping a few stories with my mum before the second leg of the relay. Zoe sat in the back next to me and, despite our eagerness, our attempts at conversation kept getting tied in knots that unwound into silence

So it shouldn’t seem odd that, from the beginning, I felt on edge in her big house at the edges of the city. There was a smell—something like cheese, but not exactly—and the furniture all felt too stiff, or else a little sticky. After dinner, I felt my first moment of relief: her mother ran a bath, and asked if I would like a soak.

It was at the moment that I stepped up to get into the water—torso half bent over, leg cocked up at an angle—that she opened the door. I’ll never forget that look.

By then, embarrassment about my body was the norm. When I went to the pool I got changed into my swimsuit beneath the veil of a towel; I would shout and slam the door if my parents ever caught me in my underwear. To have Zoe see me—all my lumpy, ill-fitting skin—at the worst possible angle was bad enough. But what made it worse was that she did not seem to care about my reaction. She did not apologise, did not turn away. She stood and stared and saw it all.

Between the empty buildings, the dull-roaring sea, and the handsome, sweaty cast making their way up the hill, we stood facing one another. And Zoe looked at me in exactly the same way. I saw at that moment that she knew everything. So I did the only thing that I could think to do. I turned and walked away.

Less than halfway down the empty beach, I stopped and gave up. A quick estimate told me there was still more than an hour of walking left to get back to the station, and it had taken everything I had to break myself away from Zoe’s penetrating gaze. Setting myself roughly down beside a driftwood-trunk, I leaned against the soft, worn wood and looked out to sea.

The warning had been right. The wind that lashed our faces in between the hollow shell of Odysseus’ home had only grown stronger. That early pink light was gone, and in the distance now dark clouds were gathering. I shivered. Starting to get up, I thought about the journey home, my shoebox apartment, and returning to another week of shouting vague descriptions down the phone to expired adventurers. I thought again. I sat back down.

It made it easier that there was a full moon. Even through the clouds, it allowed a little light. The wind only partly obscured the racket of my awkward fall trying to climb over the fence and back onto the set, but at least I didn’t trip over anything or anyone as I picked my way between the trailers up towards the silhouette of Ithaka.

Up close the buildings shook and quivered. I heard the sound of joints rattling, threatening to come loose. A façade no more, this was not a city either, but a writhing, living thing. I had wanted something more, I thought. And look what I had found. The wind drummed against my throat, ran its fingers through my hair.

When the stars appeared, I was still in the same spot. At last the storm had passed, the clouds carried by the wind, and I felt a stillness falling. But an image is a trap. You get caught inside. No matter how I tried, I was never going to dream my way back.

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Sam Reese

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Hailing from New Zealand, Sam is an insatiable traveller. Having worked in Sydney and London he currently lives in York, teaching English and Creative Writing at the University of Northampton. A self-confessed short story nerd, he has published fiction in Brittle Star and Headland, and won AZURE’s January 2018 Writing Contest. He also writes literary criticism; his first book, The Short Story in Midcentury America, was published with Louisiana State University Press in 2017.

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