Because the launching of my new novel Not Not a Jew has been delayed (briefly), I’ve been proofing my nonfiction compilation of twenty-five stores of love rediscovered later in life – Love in the Second Act – soon to be re-issued with a new foreword by TMI Press. And, because I’m here in Greece, I’ve chosen one interview set here to excerpt (from ACT TWO, SCENE SEVEN- HOMECOMING) by way of an introduction to this upbeat book that will soon join the other reissues:
The days are getting shorter, the weather uncertain. Because every swim might be the last, there’s poignancy in each. The light is captivating against the dappled Peloponnesian hills every time I swim out into the salty sea. Because the Aegean is so buoyant, it is a pleasant place to bob and converse. The local jokester, Jorgos, whose eyes are black as olives, swims over and asks, “What are you writing these days? Another book about misery and war?”
I tell him.
“Ah! Sex and the elderly. I’ve got a story for you: Mr. Popidopolous hits seventy, and decides he wants to live a long time. He starts to diet and exercise, and gives up smoking. He loses his gut, his body firms up, and, to make the picture complete, he buys a toupee to cover his bald scalp. Then he walks out in the street and is hit by the first car that comes along. As he lies dying, he calls, ‘God, how could you do this to me?’ God answers, ‘To tell you the truth, I didn’t recognize you.’ ”
“That’s not exactly what I’m looking for.”
I notice a friend swimming my way. He’s Pandias Scaramangas, an eighty-year-old Greek. Three years ago his wife Ileana died. Last year he married Lila, with whom he had had a secret relationship for at least twenty-seven years. I wave.
“Apropos of Pandias, here’s one,” Jorgos gleefully says, pulling another joke from his quiver: “A woman in her late eighties goes to a doctor to complain about her husband’s impotence. The doctor hears her out and asks, ‘How old is your husband ?’ ‘Eighty-eight.’ ‘When did you first notice his waning enthusiasm and inability to perform?’ ‘Well, the first time was last night, and again this morning.’ ”
Jorgos breaks up over his own joke. He’s succeeded in getting me to crack a smile with this one. Pandias is beside us smiling his broad, ingratiating smile.
Pandias drolly says, “What’s this?”
Jorgos tells Pandias, “She’s writing about old age and sex.”
We three tread water.
“And love?” asks Pandias.
Me: “Yes. And love.”
I notice that, as time has passed, Pandias hasn’t changed much physically.
“What does it all add up to?” he asks thoughtfully. “Love? Sex? Do you know that no one taught me anything about sex. One Italian woman I slept with said, ‘Do this. Don’t do that.’ But no one ever taught me. If I am reincarnated, I’m going immediately to a sex school to learn techniques.”
Jorgos raises an eyebrow.
“I have much to say about love,” Pandias tells me, so we make a date. Then I swim toward shore and leave him with Yannis, who’s already starting another barrage of bad jokes.
One night there’s a wild storm with Beaufort 8 winds – gale force – and pounding rains flailing the bougainvillea and the geraniums on the terrace. Twenty-four more hours of punishing winds and rains follow. Raging rivers flood down the stone steps from the mountains, walls wash away, cisterns overflow. It seems like the end of the world. Late Saturday night, the storm finally dies. The air is suddenly clear. Stars glint. On Sunday morning, as usual, I hear the sound of roosters and I can once again see the faraway red light of the morning hydrofoil coming out of the darkness, blinking its way across the horizon.
Morning is fresh and beautiful, I, as well as everyone else, must begin cleaning up the mess left by the storm. I’m moved to notice among the trashed geraniums in their flooded pots, that – out of nowhere, unexpectedly, from twisting threadlike vines – periwinkle-blue morning glories have opened. They lift my spirits. They last the entire morning. By the time I’m due at my appointment, the petals have curled up.
Pandias and I sit in the study of his stone house. His new wife Lila is a patrician woman with the face of a Byzantine icon. Lila shuts the door behind her after bringing us a tray with coffee.
“I have the reputation of being a womanizer,” Pandias confesses.
I already know this because I’ve known him a long time. He may be a bit of a rogue but he’s got a good heart and a long and intriguing amorous history. Doubtless there’s much he has to say about love. We became acquainted a number of decades before at a wedding at which I’d been the maid of honor, and he’d been the best man. He had, in fact, provided the bridegroom with the suit he wore. In the intervening years, both of these friends – Anthony and Christina – had died hard deaths. For many years, when our paths crossed, because of the death of these friends, Pandias and I could hardly bear to speak to each other. When encountering each other we’d usually just shake our heads sadly. After the death of Pandias’s wife, for some reason, we resumed our friendship.
He offers the platter of pastries. “Shall I give you a general outlook of my ideas on love?”
I shake my head yes.
“Both love and the development of the human brain go by waves, like the waves on the shore. One wave does not wait for the other to subside. One wave climbs over the other one while the other one is going away. Sometimes they synchronize well. You have one wave, one goes back, then you have the second. Very often, one wave falls onto another. And so you have turmoil, like in a mixer.”
“Sex is something that has to do with the lower layers of the brain. You have what they call the urge. Sex is like what reptiles do. They either attack or they withdraw. If they see something moving in a certain way, or smelling a certain way, they go toward it and want to unite with it. They want to become one. They want to embrace or be embraced by it.”
His dark eyes twinkle with teasing and earnestness. He’s about the same height as me, with the face of a friendly fox terrier. In spite of the show he makes of his chauvinism, he’s beguiling and has always been generous to everyone.
“A higher part of the brain is mammalian. Mammals, say cats, they have urges, yes, but also instincts. When they have little babies they become tender, but if the gland secretes something else by mistake, this cat will eat her own kittens. Sex you get from the reptilian part of the brain. The second layer is love in a mammalian way, the mammalian part of the brain . . . affection, tenderness. The third layer of the brain is the neocortex, which means you think and calculate, so you marry a rich woman and get a dowry. These three layers of the brain very often do not mix harmoniously so you have someone who goes for sex to prostitutes, even though he loves his wife and children. Sometimes the three layers combine and you have someone who has good sex with his wife, he is tender with her, he thinks it’s good socially, she’s a nice person to go about with. But very often these things do not combine well and one is stronger than the other or fights it and drives you this way or that and makes you miserable. I like women more than men. I think most women are crazy and I think men are stupid and dull. I prefer crazy women to stupid men. I know that I’m stupid. That’s the only thing I have in common with Socrates.”
“You remarried recently. Looking at your life, this womanizing, what does love mean to you at this time?”
“Let me speak about sex first. The truth is that I never really liked sex very much nor felt skilled at it. For me sex was a way of approaching another person, getting to know. The best moment for me was afterward, when we smoked a cigarette and I’d ask her to tell me about her life, her first love and other stories.”
I can’t always tell when he’s serious and when he’s not.
“Sex – I considered even then, more so now – is a very stupid kind of motion. Going forward, backward, like an engine with a piston. Look at cats. Look at dogs. They all get a very stupid face while having sex. I had the urge for sex, so I wanted to do it and finish with it. To show off about it and get rid of the urge. I kept sex separate from other feelings. I would go to prostitutes. Often it was not a pleasant need but I had to do it. I love people but this is not sex. When I was young, I used to need it quite often. I know that wherever I go – you can parachute me into China – I’d find a woman who’ll cook for me, who’ll bring me coffee, or rather tea, and make love with me.”
His eyes twinkle with naughtiness.
“How long were you married ?” I ask.
His face saddens, tears fill his eyes. “I was married for fifty years and I loved Ileana. I loved her. She was somehow my child. At the same time she kept me going because she had a lot of humor. She was very funny and extremely brave and very intelligent. More than me. I didn’t know that until a friend heard me say that Ileana was stupid. He said, ‘Be careful. She is more intelligent than you.’ She was very, very special – half Greek, half Romanian.”
He hands me a photo of a child about two years old. “That’s my granddaughter.”
“What’s her name?”
It seems strange to me that a man who’d womanized throughout his married life would be so devastated by the death of his wife. It seemed like a contradiction. Perhaps because he’s of another culture, of another generation, this grief is not a contradiction? It’s something I can’t explain, but so what. There is no doubt that his sad state is sincere and deep. He hands me another photo. This one is of himself with his arm around a beautiful woman, who looks like Louise Brooks. It’s his wife, Ileana. He continues weeping.
“I knew when it was taken that it would be our last photograph together. I knew that l was going to die or she was. You can see it in the photo . . . we both felt it. What I imagined was dying first . . . me first.”
A wash of tears rolls down his cheeks.
“We had two beds like this, facing each other, two separate rooms but we could see each other. I saw the trees moving with the air . . . the wind blowing the trees. l could see Ileana. l don’t believe in afterlife. I don’t believe in souls. Yet I know very often what’s going to happen. I had an intuition that my and Ileana’s son, Peter, would not live out his life, but I didn’t worry about it because I figured by then they’ll have the medicine he’d need. But Peter died of a brain tumor seventeen years ago. It happened, but without the medicine I hoped for.”
“You went on, you continued living.”
“Did you think of suicide?”
“I want to commit suicide not for personal things but as a protest to this stupid universe that governs us, or rather for a cause that I cannot foresee yet. But I won’t do it as it will anyway happen.”
“Age? How do you feel about being eighty years old?”
“Awful. I didn’t think it would happen to me. First of all, it’s a shame to be old. It’s a degradation. But you can’t help it.”
“I’ve known you for a long time. You look almost the same.”
“Yes. But I looked like an old man when I was young. I’ve caught up with my face. I feel okay. It’s just the shame of it. You feel you are disintegrating, every day a little more. You don’t remember this or that. Every time I have to mention a name I have to wait five minutes to try to pry it up.”
“Has your philosophy of life changed? Or are you the same as you were sixty years ago?”
“I’ve changed a lot. I’ve learned a lot of things. I wouldn’t do the same mistakes. All my life has been a mistake. The only thing I haven’t regretted is marrying Ileana and having Peter, even though he didn’t stay long with us. Now I have Alexander, whom I had with Mireille.”
Pandias and Mireille, a French woman, had had a long, tempestuous affair.
“She had a way of driving me crazy. I don’t know if you can call it love. I became another person, aggressive, bad, crazy. I would say, ‘Mireille, stop it! Stop it! I’m going to drive the car into the wall,’ and she’d continue. Once I went full speed into a tree. We ended up in the hospital with broken limbs. Can you call that love?”
“The emotions were certainly strong.”
“I said never again. I didn’t know jealousy existed before that. Mammalian love is full of tenderness and looking after. But when jealousy enters . . . I think cats and dogs are very jealous. If you pet one the other will come.”
He stands up, brushes crumbs off his shirt.
“Now we must go upstairs. Lila will get upset if I stay away much longer.”
We walk up the stone stairway to the sitting/ dining room of his two hundred-year-old house.
The walls are decorated with large paintings, many of which he won at poker. Lila has set the table for lunch. She serves roast chicken with lemon sauce, roast potatoes and scoops of cool lemon sorbet afterward. When the plates are removed, she spreads out a few photographs of their wedding on the table.
She tells me, “We were married one year ago in May . . .”
Pandias finishes the sentence, “. . . in Athens, a friend of mine was best man. A huge church in Kolonaki. The church was decorated with flowers as you see, but for another wedding.”
Lila laughs and points out the various photos.
“We used their decorations. Lovely pink flowers. That’s the priest. Those are Dutch people who had entered the church just to see it. They were happy to watch us get married, so they congratulated us.”
Pandias puts his hand on Lila’s shoulder. “Zeus cut the original human in half and we’re all looking to find the other half in order to become complete. The thing I like the most and agree with on human love is in Plato. Wait a minute.”
He goes to his bookshelf and pulls out a dog-eared copy of Plato’s Symposium. It’s in Greek with English translation on alternating pages. “I want to find the place where Aristophanes tells Socrates . . . ah. . . .”
He reads: . . . the shape of each human being was a rounded whole, with back and sides forming a circle. Each one had four hands and the same number of legs and two identical faces on a circular neck. They had one head for both the faces, which were turned in opposite directions, four ears, two sets of genitals.
I have to laugh. Hedwig and the Angry Inch comes to mind.
He explains: “You see Zeus found these beings overly strong and ambitious, too much competition to the gods. They were becoming too dangerous, too obnoxious. Zeus wondered, Should we kill them? Should we get rid of them? Instead, he said, ‘Let’s weaken them.’ ”
He again reads: ” ‘Zeus . . . cut humans into two, as people cut sorb-apples in half before they preserve them or as they cut hard-boiled eggs with hairs. As he cut each one, he told Apollo to tum the face and the half-neck attached to it towards the gash. Zeus took pity on them and came up with another plan: he moved their genitals round to the front.’ Perhaps Lila and I are two halves of the same whole, reunited?”
He smiles his devilish smile. Lila rolls her eyes, then brings a homemade cake from the kitchen and cuts it.
“Delicious,” I comment, not lying, and ask Lila, “Where did you learn to cook?”
“I taught her,” Pandias brags.
Lila nods her head. “I didn’t even have a cooker in the house nothing – when I met him. I couldn’t even fry an egg. We’d always have lunch in restaurants.”
“I bought her a book. The best investment I ever made.”
“I learned for you. The first thing I did was a souffle.”
Me: “Was it a success?”
“Yes. But it was very well explained.”
“You started then to cook for Pandias?”
“When I met her she had never tasted fish.”
“I didn’t like it. But now I do.”
To Lila: “What else did he teach you ?”
Pandias answers for her, “Patience.”
Lila answers for herself: “Many things.”
To Lila: “What have you taught him?”
“To diet. To be healthy.”
To Lila: “Do you depend on him?”
Pandias replies in her place: “She doesn’t depend on me, I depend on her.”
To Pandias: “Are you romantic?”
Pandias: “Not at all.”
Lila: “You are.”
We finish our cake and drink coffee.
“Years ago, I had another house on the island,” Pandias explains. “I used to wake up early in the morning before the sun rose. I’d sit on the wall over there and wait for the sun to come up. I’d see the sunrise, would smoke my cigarette, read a little. I didn’t know then that I was sitting beside the arch under what would one day be my house. One day I noticed the arch and thought, This is the house for me. It belonged to a German. He was desperate to sell it. He was selling it for one third of its price. Why? I asked him. He replied, ‘Because next year I’m going to be fifty and I won’t be able anymore to go up the hill.’ I’m eighty,” he chortles, “I go slowly, use a stick . . .”
Lila finishes his sentence, “. . . but he goes up and down the hill every day!”
A few mornings later, again, are newborn periwinkle-blue morning glories, their thin, curling vines wrapping themselves around the geranium stalks. What had been the surprise of a few morning glories that lived for one day only on the day after the big storm became a few more the next day. These also died. The day after that there were none. Then, four. Every day I’d been given the gift of these heart-stopping blue petals and then the letdown when they died. Today there are ten dewy morning glories newly burst from their buds.
In the water I swim over to Lila and Pandias. We tread water and – I don’t know why – the subject of death comes up.
Lila tells us: “Once I woke up, had hemorrhaged during the night. There I was, both me and my bedding soaked with blood.”
I gasp. Pandias gapes at her as if he’d never heard the story. Her description of the bloody scene becomes more vivid. She describes the bright red stains on the sheets, on her nightdress. She concludes by saying, “But, do you know what? I felt an enormous sense of well-being. I’m not afraid of death, nor would I suicide for any reason.”
Pandias agrees: “I doubt I’ll ever commit suicide but if one chooses to die by one’s own hand, I’ve been told one must eat a large quantity of good foie gras. Then one must drink a bottle of good champagne, wait one half an hour. Then . . . go into the sea. Either you’ll drown or not.”
Shortly after they bob off, and I go ashore to read. Before I open my book, I look up to see them bobbing across the horizon. They are indistinguishable, one from the other. One is wearing a white sun visor. But which one? I can’t tell. I finish reading and gather up my things from the stony beach. I’m about to walk off and start packing my suitcase, when Jorgos – mask atop his head and a snorkle in hand – stops me in my tracks with an other of his jokes:
“An elderly man was enjoying dinner at a small taverna in the countryside with an elderly woman he’d just begun to date. He remembers the romantic taverna as the place he’d once brought young girls for seduction dinners long, long ago. When the moment would come, he remembers he’d take them behind this taverna, where he’d cozy up to the back fence, pull the girl close and begin to make love.
” ‘How about taking a stroll outside into the back with me?’ he invites his date.
“‘That sounds like a good idea,’ she answers.
“There’s a policeman sitting in the next booth listening to all this, and having a chuckle to himself because he knows that out back is where seductions take place.
“‘I’ve got to see these two old-timers trying to have sex,’ he thinks, and follows them outside as they walk haltingly along, leaning on each other for support, aided by walking sticks.
“Finally they get to the back of the taverna that’s full of flowers and trees and make their way to the fence. The old man presses the woman against the fence, puts his arms around her and kisses her deeply. Then he drops his trousers, lifts her skirt and pulls down her panties. Suddenly they erupt into the must furious sex that the watching policeman has ever seen. They are bucking and jumping like eighteen-year-olds. This goes on for about forty minutes! Finally, they both collapse against each other panting. The police man is utterly amazed.
“It takes them about half an hour to recover. Finally the old couple puts their clothes back on. The policeman thinks that what he’s seen was truly amazing; they were going like a speeding train. When the old woman goes off to find the ladies’ room to tidy up, he decides to ask the old man what his secret is.
“‘That was something else!’ he states, and asks, ‘Did you know that’s where all lovers go to make love?’
” ‘Yes,’ he answers, ‘but I haven’t been back here since I was a young man.’
“The policeman gushes, ‘I’m amazed. You must have been having sex for about forty minutes. Tell me please, was there some sort of secret you learned all those years ago?’
“The old man replies, ‘Fifty years ago that wasn’t an electric fence.’ ”
I tell Jorgos I’ll be expecting a new quiver full of jokes when next we meet.
“A little classier, please,” I beg, and climb the stone steps.