Gary pushes back the wide rim of his Cordoban hat and wipes his brow with a handkerchief. It’s a three-hour walk back, Markos, he says.
¿Tres horas, hágale comprende? Alfonso echoes.
And you’re still going?
¿Para una foto? Alfonso says.
I nod. I keep quiet because they would not understand. I am not sure I understand it myself.
You know you’re going to get lost, Gary says.
Then good luck, amigo, Gary says, offering his hand.
Es un griego loco, Alfonso says.
I laugh. It is not the first time I have been called a crazy Greek. We shake hands. Gary adjusts the straps of his knapsack, and the two of them head back up the trail along the folds of the mountain, Gary waving once without looking as they take a hairpin turn. I walk back the way we had come. It takes me four hours, actually, because I do get lost as Gary had predicted. I am exhausted by the time I reach the campsite. I search all over, kicking bushes, looking between rocks, dread building as I rummage in vain. Then, just as I try to resign myself to the worst, I spot a flash of white in a batch of shrubs up a shallow slope. I find the photo wedged between a tangle of brambles. I pluck it free, beat dust from it, my eyes brimming with tears of relief.
Twenty-three … twenty-four … twenty-five …
In Caracas I sleep under a bridge. A youth hostel in Brussels. Sometimes I splurge and rent a room in a nice hotel, take long hot showers, shave, eat meals in a bathrobe. I watch color TV. The cities, the roads, the countryside, the people I meet—they all begin to blur. I tell myself I am searching for something. But more and more, it feels like I am wandering, waiting for something to happen to me, something that will change everything, something that my whole life has been leading up to.
Thirty-four … thirty-five … thirty-six …
My fourth day in India. I totter down a dirt road among stray cattle, the world tilting under my feet. I have been vomiting all day. My skin is the yellow of a sari, and it feels like invisible hands are peeling it raw. When I can’t walk anymore, I lie down on the side of the road. An old man across the road stirs something in a big steel pot. Beside him is a cage, inside the cage a blue-and-red parrot. A dark-skinned vendor pushing a cartful of empty green bottles passes me by. That’s the last thing I remember.
Forty-one … forty-two …
I wake up in a big room. The air is thick with heat and something like rotting cantaloupe. I am lying on a twin-sized steel-frame bed, cushioned from the hard, springless platform by a mattress no thicker than a paperback book. The room is filled with beds like mine. I see emaciated arms dangling over the sides, dark matchstick legs protruding from stained sheets, scant-toothed mouths open. Idle ceiling fans. Walls marked by patches of mold. The window beside me lets in hot, sticky air and sunlight that stabs the eyeballs. The nurse—a burly, glowering Muslim man named Gul—tells me I may die of hepatitis.
Fifty-five … fifty-six … fifty-seven …
I ask for my backpack. What backpack? Gul says with indifference. All my things are gone—my clothes, my cash, my books, my camera. That’s all the thief left you, Gul says in his rolling English, pointing to the windowsill beside me. It’s the picture. I pick it up. Thalia, her hair flapping in the breeze, the water bubbling with froth around her, her bare feet on the rocks, the leaping Aegean flung out before her. A lump rises to my throat. I don’t want to die here, among these strangers, so far away from her. I tuck the photo in the wedge between the glass and the window frame.
Sixty-six … sixty-seven … sixty-eight …
The boy in the bed next to mine has an old man’s face, haggard, sunken, carved. His lower belly is swollen with a tumor the size of a bowling ball. Whenever a nurse touches him there, his eyes squeeze shut and his mouth springs open in a silent, agonized wail. This morning, one of the nurses, not Gul, is trying to feed him pills, but the boy turns his head side to side, his throat making a sound like a scraping against wood. Finally, the nurse pries his mouth open, forces the pills inside. When he leaves, the boy rolls his head slowly toward me. We eye each other across the space between our beds. A small tear squeezes out and rolls down his cheek.
Seventy-five … seventy-six … seventy-seven …
The suffering, the despair in this place, is like a wave. It rolls out from every bed, smashes against the moldy walls, and swoops back toward you. You can drown in it. I sleep a lot. When I don’t, I itch. I take the pills they give me and the pills make me sleep again. Otherwise, I look down at the bustling street outside the dormitory, at the sunlight skidding over tent bazaars and back-alley tea shops. I watch the kids shooting marbles on sidewalks that melt into muddy gutters, the old women sitting in doorways, the street vendors in dhotis squatting on their mats, scraping coconuts, hawking marigold garlands. Someone lets out an earsplitting shriek from across the room. I doze off.
Eighty-three … eighty-four … eighty-five …
I learn that the boy’s name is Manaar. It means “guiding light.” His mother was a prostitute, his father a thief. He lived with his aunt and uncle, who beat him. No one knows exactly what is killing him, only that it is. No one visits him, and when he dies, a week from now—a month, two at the outside—no one will come to claim him. No one will grieve. No one will remember. He will die where he lived, in the cracks. When he sleeps, I find myself looking at him, at his cratered temples, the head that’s too big for his shoulders, the pigmented scar on his lower lip where, Gul informed me, his mother’s pimp had the habit of putting out his cigarette. I try speaking to him in English, then in the few Urdu words I know, but he only blinks tiredly. Sometimes I put my hands together and make shadow animals on the wall to win a smile from him.
Eighty-seven … eighty-eight … eighty-nine …
One day Manaar points to something outside my window. I follow his finger, raise my head, but I see nothing but the blue wisp of sky through the clouds, children below playing with water gushing from a street pump, a bus spewing exhaust. Then I realize he is pointing at the photo of Thalia. I pluck it from the window and hand it to him. He holds it close to his face, by the burnt corner, and stares at it for a long time. I wonder if it is the ocean that draws him. I wonder if he’s ever tasted salt water or got dizzy watching the tide pull away from his feet. Or perhaps, though he can’t see her face, he senses a kin in Thalia, someone who knows what pain feels like. He goes to hand the photo back to me. I shake my head. Hold on to it, I say. A shadow of mistrust crosses his face. I smile. And, I cannot be sure, but I think he smiles back.
Ninety-two … ninety-three … ninety-four …
I beat the hepatitis. Strange how I can’t tell if Gul is pleased or disappointed at my having proved him wrong. But I know I’ve caught him by surprise when I ask if I can stay on as a volunteer. He cocks his head, frowns. I end up having to talk to one of the head nurses.
Ninety-seven … ninety-eight … ninety-nine …
The shower room smells like urine and sulfur. Every morning I carry Manaar into it, holding his na**d body in my arms, careful not to bounce him—I’d watched one of the volunteers carry him before over the shoulder as if he were a bag of rice. I gently lower him onto the bench and wait for him to catch his breath. I rinse his small, frail body with warm water. Manaar always sits quietly, patiently, palms on his knees, head hung low. He is like a fearful, bony old man. I run the soapy sponge over his rib cage, the knobs of his spine, over shoulder blades that jut out like shark fins. I carry him back to his bed, feed him his pills. It soothes him to have his feet and calves massaged, so I do that for him, taking my time. When he sleeps, it is always with the picture of Thalia half tucked under his pillow.
One hundred one … one hundred two …
I go for long, aimless walks around the city, if only to get away from the hospital, the collective breaths of the sick and dying. I walk in dusty sunsets through streets lined with graffiti-stained walls, past tin-shed stalls packed tightly against one another, crossing paths with little girls carrying basketfuls of raw dung on their head, women covered in black soot boiling rags in huge aluminum vats. I think a lot about Manaar as I meander down a cat’s cradle of narrow alleyways, Manaar waiting to die in that room full of broken figures like him. I think a lot about Thalia, sitting on the rock, looking out at the sea. I sense something deep inside me drawing me in, tugging at me like an undertow. I want to give in to it, be seized by it. I want to give up my bearings, slip out of who I am, shed everything, the way a snake discards old skin.
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.