I don’t remember where it was, or when, but I suppose I was touring with the company. A few of us had taken a trip to someone’s house—a house of a friend—outside of the city where there was wilderness in the backyard. Now that I think of it, it could’ve been somewhere in northern Italy. I remember we were in a town known for their pumpkin mousse ravioli, near Bologna.
From the kitchen door a field sloped down to a creek with lots of trees, orange and fig, I think. Everyone gathered around a table covered in dirt and dust from when it had last rained and took with them plates of cheese and fresh loaves of bread. A few meters away there was a hammock in the shade. It’s where I kept myself that afternoon, afar from everyone, but where I could hear conversation. I was reading Orlando for the second time, aloud to myself under my breath, under the shade of two lemon tress. I still do that, you know, read aloud when I’m alone. Nothing in that sort of thing has changed about me.
Now I’m at your house, the one you helped build a few years ago in Pelion where they say Greek gods used to come holiday.
At some point, you walked to the kitchen to get some wine, and on your way back you must’ve heard me.
“You reading to yourself?” you asked.
“I am,” I said. “I see the story differently if I read out loud.”
You nodded and asked, “You all right here by yourself?”
“I am,” I said, and smiled to prove it.
“We’re about to have some wine if you want some,” you said. I shook my head and lifted my book. Then you understood.
Now I’m at your house, the one you helped build a few years ago in Pelion where they say Greek gods used to come holiday. As I sit here on the terrace taking in the sun, it’s as though I am on that hammock again and I hear your voice even though you aren’t here.
After I wrote to you and told you I wanted to be alone for a while and to wake up to the sea, you offered your home to me
It’s beautiful here, really.
This house is built out of stone and wood, and is filled with all the parts of you I have never gotten to know: your tens and tens of pillows covered in Moroccan textiles strewn along the couch on the bottom floor that I’m sure come from that Middle Eastern shop close to the soup stand in Lyon, where you live; your piles of magazines that range from National Geographic to a German edition of Architectural Digest; candles of all different sizes and colors you have on the coffee table, and on shelves, and on windowsills, still dripping from that night you must’ve been here with a group of friends, or with a lover, chatting through the night with nothing but the sounds of cicadas outside the glass door; and your serpentine branch as thick as my arm hanging from the ceiling, yellow holiday lights strung through it, set to a blinking sequence that keeps the light in the room changing as I read by your fireplace in one of those low seats that has a wooden footstool at its end; your postcards from Alaska and Mt. Fuji and Iceland snug behind wooden beams where they hold, and behind pantries, half-shown—a few of them are photographs of you standing atop a mountain surrounded by clouds with a hiking stick in one hand; in the open kitchen there are your old-fashioned tea cups, glass-blue shot glasses, old plates you’ve collected over the years; your Japanese tea kettles and wooden spoons, your pink whisk that is surely part of a kid’s collection from some kitchen play box; a small radio with a long antennae by the window set to a station that plays classical music all day and all night. I’ve been listening to it ever since I arrived. There’s a jingle that comes on every few minutes between pieces like “Bacchus” Cup’ and “Nessum Dorma.” “Acontento de la programa! ” Or something like that. It might not even be Greek. It could be Italian for all I know. But I love it.
I know you’re not here, but you are.
It wasn’t until four years later when I was performing in Kalamata at an amphitheater near Athens when I saw you for the first time.
I wanted to wake up to the sound of waves crashing in the distance and the view of an island across the bluest horizon—lapis lazuli and sapphire and whatever flower is the bluest. But then, in my head I hear your voice: “Are you all right here by yourself?”
Instead of lifting a book, I’m writing this.
I heard a lot about you before I met you. We danced for the same company but at different times. I got your roles after you left. It was you I watched on the videos whenever we had to learn the choreography of a ballet being brought back to the repertoire. The director and dancers who knew you spoke highly of you—you had moved to France to join another company the year before I arrived.
Just a year and we missed each other.
It wasn’t until four years later when I was performing in Kalamata at an amphitheater near Athens when I saw you for the first time. In the middle of a piece we were performing, we had to go out into the audience and take someone onstage. We had only two minutes to find someone. We had to be selective—choose someone with bright clothing; an elderly woman who might seem willing to participate; someone eccentric; someone bashful. I can’t remember why, but I had trouble finding someone. All the other dancers—there were sixteen of us—had already chosen their partners and were escorting them onstage. Pressured for time with the music cue only seconds away, I reached out to someone four seats in from the aisle on one of the top rows. He wore a summer fedora, and I suppose that’s what caught my eye, the Robert Redford fedora. He stepped out into the aisle and left his hat with a friend. That’s when I recognized you.
It dawned on me that you were part Greek and you must’ve been home visiting family. It was the middle of July. But what were the chances?
I pulled you down the aisle, practically running down the steps and to the stage so that we’d make it in time.
Then we danced.
You were strong and playful and lifted me in classical positions as though I were a girl. When you put me down I ran around you the way a squirrel runs around the trunk of a tree. Part of my costume was a black hat similar to the one you’d been wearing. You grabbed it and put it on. A crowd in the audience cheered. But without my hat, I felt exposed. I wondered if you knew me, if you’d heard about me the way I’d heard about you.
At the end of the section, after the music changed to a number by Dean Martin, we had to do a three-step with our partners. Then slowly, one by one, we’d ask the audience members who’d joined us to return to their seats. You and I were upstage, in the corner, and the lights were beginning to dim as they were supposed to. I couldn’t look up at you. I stared at your chest where your buttons had come undone. We were dancing so close our foreheads were only an inch apart.
Someone in the company knew you. When she was offstage I heard her whispering your name in the wings, but neither you nor I turned our heads. It felt as though you were staring at the tops of my eyes, waiting for me to look up.
After the show, backstage, we laughed about the coincidence. Someone asked if I’d done it on purpose. We weren’t supposed to grab someone we knew. But I didn’t know you, I said. I’d never met you until then.
The night sky was dark and all of the stars could be seen. I was standing by the backstage door with my bag ready to leave. I can’t remember why, or how, but you appeared suddenly and grabbed my hand and led me down to where some of your friends had gathered near the theater’s entrance. They were having a glass of wine at the outside bar, greeting some of the other dancers who’d already gotten dressed. You introduced me to them and spoke of plans for the following day since we didn’t have class until late afternoon. Everyone seemed excited about it. We’d go to a vineyard of a friend in a small village up the mountain, have fish and Greek salad for lunch by the shore.
The entire time, you never let go of my hand.
I didn’t know it then, but the next time I’d see you I’d have to keep my distance from you.
In the morning we met downstairs in the hotel lobby, the few of us who wanted to go, and by noon we were all in a great mood from the wine we’d drunk. Then, at a long table under a canopy overlooking the sea, we were served small red fish—it was the first time I’d ever bitten off the head off a creature and swallowed it entire. It was delicious, and I asked for more.
We never sat together, at that table or in the car, or stood next to one another as we all walked through the vineyard. We never had a chance to speak to one another. We were a group of ten, at least, and everyone wanted to be next to you. At the end of out excursion, we said good-bye.
I didn’t see you again after that. Perhaps you’d left to the north, to your house here off Mt. Pelion, or had traveled to Athens to meet some friends. I didn’t know it then, but the next time I’d see you I’d have to keep my distance from you.
I was in the middle of a five-year relationship—but that wasn’t the reason.
I woke up this morning and found a white cat with a gold tail waiting for me on the terrace. It’s so bright out that she has to shut her eyes when she walks around me. I guess she can sense where things are because she doesn’t bump into anything. She purrs and bends her head to my ankles, rubs her face there and begs for attention. She wants food, I know. I found the cans of cat food you left under the countertop. But I don’t want to spoil her so I give her one feeding a day, three generous spoonfuls at the hour I have breakfast. We eat together. As she eats, I peel a banana and read over what I’ve written.
In the company you were in, you were single. A close friend of mine—my closest, in fact—joined the company. (I don’t want to say his name because by saying his name the story will be his instead of mine—but you know who I’m talking about.) He left a boyfriend behind, a pianist, from where he moved, and they had decided to try to make it work, the long-distance.
Three months after he started working with the company, he called me, and it wasn’t until he told me your name that I knew I’d lost my chance in getting to know you any better. First, he said he’d been having an affair, then, that he was having an affair. But apart from the tone of guilt in his voice there was enchantment. It was all in the way he spoke about you.
I could understand how difficult it must’ve been for two beautiful boys to resist one another, you, and my friend. But what happened next was what I had a hard time wrapping my head around.
There was no reason for my stomach to have dropped when he said your name—I was still with my boyfriend—but it did. He thought I’d never heard of you before. He went on describing you, how generous you were with him, how talented a dancer you are. When he said your name, I said it with him because I knew it had to be you.
But having an affair with my closest friend wasn’t the reason I couldn’t speak to you when I saw you again. It’s what happened after, with the pianist. When I found out about it a compass of loyalty was thrown in front of me and I had to make a choice as to which direction to move in.
You were not the direction I moved in.
In the weeks after you slept with my friend he confessed to his boyfriend what had happened and it caused a riff between them, as expected—long arguments into the night, bottles thrown across a room, silent treatments. Up to there, I understood. I could understand how difficult it must’ve been for two beautiful boys to resist one another, you, and my friend. But what happened next was what I had a hard time wrapping my head around.
The pianist wanted to meet you, he said. He was furious and couldn’t control his rage or his jealousy. He thought that if he met you his fury would subside, that the demonic vision of you would calm into something human and ordinary. When you heard he wanted to meet you, you agreed. And so, you met. Then you slept with him.
In fact, you didn’t just sleep with him, you fell in love with him, and he, somehow, fell in love with you.
My friend was devastated, which is obvious. It was last thing he ever expected and it ensnared him into a deep depression. He loved you both, and now, he had neither of you. Worse, he had to go to work and see you, loving you and hating you in every instant as he circled the room around you. He had fallen for you, but now, you’d taken the pianist from him. Not just the pianist. But his lover. It was so unbearable he asked the director for a leave of absence, which he was granted. Three months passed and when he returned to work, he found the pain just as unbearable as if it had just happened.
He came to visit me in Spain where I was living. I remember him sitting by the window, stunned silent as he sat on my couch for most of the day. When I asked him if he wanted to talk about it, all he could say was that he had trouble breathing, and that the room felt tight.
“No matter how much I try to get over it,” he said, “there are times my chest starts to contract and I can’t breathe. No matter what I tell myself, it doesn’t stop.”
I held his hand and sat beside him, but when it was time to run errands or prepare dinner, I had to leave him in the corner. I knew he was hurting because he never spoke badly about either of you. He understood how both of you had fallen for each other; after all, he’d fallen for both of you. But still, he’d been hurt.
Soon after his visit, he returned to work and asked me to visit him. The director of the company, having seen me dance before, asked me to join the company. By then, I had already wanted to dedicate myself to something besides dancing. I’d started taking online classes for a degree in literature. As a means to be close to my friend, I agreed. But only as a guest artist, which meant no obligation greater than working with the company for only weeks at a time.
Besides, I needed money.
It was a big company, at least thirty or more people than I was used to. We worked in the opera house, on the top floor, where on one side of the room there was a wall of windows that overlooked the river running through the city. Everyone was coy at the start, but they warmed up to me quickly when they learned that my motivation didn’t stem from any ambition. I was there simply to dance with them. As innocent as that.
I saw you at the end of the barre on that first day I arrived. I don’t think we said hello to one another. Maybe we did. If so, it was brief and I don’t remember. What’s certain is that we never found a moment to talk or have dinner. And in the roles I was cast in there was never a moment when I had to interact with you. When we passed each other in the hall or downstairs in the canteen, we greeted each other, but in the way strangers greet each other at a supermarket. You knew how dear my friend was to me, and without words, it was as though we had sealed an agreement: I wouldn’t get close to you for fear of hurting him.
As time passed, you turned into someone else.
After I arrived in Pelion I wrote to you and told you this house had turned me into an arachnid slayer.
That’s how it was for the years I worked in the company. I grew used to forgetting about the way we had first met. During rehearsals I heard other dancers speak of you in a negative light, how you would sleep with anyone who joined the company, how you’d break their hearts and then move on to the next person, how, it always seemed, that you had a man in every city we performed in.
You were with the pianist for two years, I think, then that too ended.
After I arrived in Pelion I wrote to you and told you this house had turned me into an arachnid slayer. I suppose it comes with the beauty of the wilderness and having a stone house. A stone house comes with spiders in it. Above the sink, where you keep the silverware in that small wooden tray, there are cobwebs around it, and a web around the faucet and its handle, and around the shower head upstairs, and in the boxed window of the bathroom where the biggest spider I’ve seen, lives. Her body is as big as my thumb and she’s striped gold and orange with pinpricks of emerald. The first time I took a shower, I set the water on her. She’d made at least three webs, like a layered mansion, and I demolished it with the force of the water. When I duck my head under the shower, I close my eyes. One day, when I opened them, she was standing at the edge of the windowsill starting at me. I’d destroyed her home and she was at her edge, ready to kill me if she could.
I didn’t kill her, but I’ve killed lots of others. Until you told me to stop.
But still, it’s not just the spiders, but the snakes and lizards that make noise in the dark after the sun has left, and the wasps and bees and mosquitoes and ants that never give me peace when I read or try to write, and those unidentified rodents that run through the woods in the middle of the night. They are everywhere. Even when I’m inside, after the sun’s gone down, after I’ve locked the door and closed the windows, they’re around. I know there’s nothing to be afraid of, but it’s just me here and I am in a country I’m not familiar with.
You mentioned that the spiders help take care of the flies so I’ve stopped killing them. When I clean the dishes, I let them watch me. When I read at night by the fireplace, I try to think that they’re peeking at what’s on the page. One night, I found new webs I hadn’t seen before around the books you have stacked on the mantle. I find them casting webs between the candles in the center of the coffee table. Sometimes in the morning when I am still nude and going down to make some coffee, I feel a thin spider’s thread breaking around my hip. Even when I can’t see them, they’re there.
I’ve gotten used to them, but I do not love them.
When I saw a photograph of you both, down from your house on the beach, with his arm over your shoulders, I knew the tides of what had happened between you had subsided.
When I stopped dancing for the company, I moved to New York to finish my studies. It was five years before I graduated with an MFA, and when I finished, I wanted to visit Europe again.
A few months ago, I wrote to you. I’d heard about your house from my friend whose heart you’d broken. Time had healed him and he was dating someone, had even come to Greece to visit you. He couldn’t stop telling me how beautiful it was here. “And the tomatoes!” he kept insisting. “There’s this local herb called kritama that only grows there. You should go. It’s paradise.”
Now that the both of you had become friends, I felt it was all right to reach out to you—for the second time. When I saw a photograph of you both, down from your house on the beach, with his arm over your shoulders, I knew the tides of what had happened between you had subsided.
A day before I arrived we spoke on the phone so you could explain to me how the alarm worked. You didn’t have much time, so we kept it brief. You said, “But I want to catch up and hear about what’s going on with your life.”
What’s going on with my life?
I’m writing stories, I wanted to tell you.
But I didn’t.
Perhaps I’ll leave this letter on your table with a stone over it. But then, with the shutters shut and everything closed there will be no breeze, no risk that it will be caught and swept under a piece of furniture—so perhaps there’s no need for stone. Perhaps this story will exist in some invisible web that neither of us can actually see, but feel.
The house further up the mountain still has its windows boarded, and the one below me with the white hydrangeas doesn’t have anyone living in it either. The rest is nothing but trees and wilderness, until you hit the winding road that leads down to the sea. But with the string of lights you’ve woven around the hanging branch above the coffee table, the way it flickers, the way every light illuminates at different times, then, all at once, it’s a marvel. You’ve made it quite magical. At night when I’m feeling lonely, I stop reading whatever I’m reading and look up at it. It’s as though the sequence is set to some dated rhythm of Morse code and it’s trying to tell me something. When they fade to nothing all at once, there is that pitch-black darkness again and I make sure the door is properly locked. I look out, hoping to see a sliver of a silver moon but not even that can be seen. All I can sense are the sounds beyond the trees. And I know that in some way you’re here, but really, I’m in the middle of darkness with you.
In a few days, I’ll clean this house and pack my things. After I’m gone, you’ll come; and still, no matter how close we came, it’d be as though we never got to know each other.
Mario Alberto Zambrano was a contemporary ballet dancer before dedicating his time to writing fiction. He has lived in Israel, The Netherlands, Germany, Spain, and Japan, and has danced for Hubbard Street Dance Chicago, Nederlands Dans Theater, Ballett Frankfurt, and Batsheva Dance Company. He graduated from The New School as a Riggio Honors Fellow and the Iowa Writers’ Workshop as an Iowa Arts Fellow, where he also received a John C. Schupes Fellowship for Excellence in Fiction. He has been selected as a Barnes and Noble Discover Great New Writer for Fall 2013, and Booklist chose his first book Lotería as one of ten top debuts for 2013.