[Fiction] Summers — Maria Schiza

The island that night was as difficult to read as it had always been, for thousands of years, only a sliver of a side available at a time. The lights were tiny and spread out and the dark was everywhere, in the gaps between buildings, near people’s feet, spread beside tables, embracing itself out at sea. The sounds were murmurs of things: the waves breaking softly at the shore, audible though we were high up and away from the water, voices moving between clarity and riddles, high heels hitting the stone-paved streets, music drifting in and out of perception. 

I could feel the sob climbing its way up my throat, my eyes already wet. That was earlier when crying was easy. I don’t remember what had set me off. I don’t know, now, if it was something you said or an expression on your face; one more thing out of place. I was there, at that table, with Stavros and Dimitris, two people I was only getting to know, and you. Something that looked like a family. That adds up to two almost-strangers. Yet there I was with three, you as unknowable as the people walking behind the back of my chair, and the magic of the place failing to make me feel safe. It was temperamental magic. I knew that, I had seen the pools, and I tried and tried to explain away your behavior, to blame it on the island, not on you. That was a place where people became other things. That was what it was all about.

Then you laughed. You looked at me, your own daughter, tears down my cheeks, breath coming in tiny gasps, and you laughed. You said my name, but with no wish to comfort, just an echo of amusement. That’s when I knew. Whatever it was that was wearing your face, it wasn’t you. The other two looked at us but didn’t reach out. It wasn’t their place.

I cried myself quiet and didn’t cry again for the days we spent there. I didn’t know what soil like that could do with my tears. 

***

Dimitris reached his hand out to me, so I could help him across.

His name was a very common one, but not as common as mine. I had known many people with his name before knowing him, and I had loved at least one of them, so it rolled off my tongue easily, tasted familiar. 

The water was cool and powerful and rushing ahead, but the stones were steady. I had taken my shoes off and my feet were anchored. It had not occurred to me, before meeting him, that others had not grown up as I had, that the wilderness of my childhood was something others lived without. His hand was warm in mine, but he was off balance, uncertain in his movements. He hadn’t done anything like that before and he seemed dazed by it, the upward climb into the forest, following the waterfalls, the counting of pools, all of them cold and clear, and even more so the further on we went. How we were alone, barely older than children, and no one seemed to worry. He stepped across and stood on the stone I was already standing on, his hand still in mine, one step closer to the other side of the river.

You had told me to be careful with him, explained why. He had felt sad when I met him, but also shy, not that different from all the other boys I had met. I hadn’t asked him about it, because I had no way of talking about death; I still don’t. But I figured he was a year older than me, and he could climb, figured the thrill would feel as good to him as it did to me. I think now he might have thought me rather quiet, meeting me as he did in your apartment, and wasn’t ready for the jumping off cliffs into natural pools that looked like glass. But he jumped after me, time after time, and his eyes glittered in the light, and whether it was the water or the sun or our laughter, something clicked.

***

You gave me a mobile phone, something you had refused to do until then, not that I had asked. A way to find me, you said, as you handed it to me without any warning. I was old enough. It hadn’t occurred to me that finding me was an issue. I could be trusted to find my way back, like a cat. The phone was small and black, and I had no idea what to do with it. I left it in the room most days, since we were all together, either the four of us or with the rest, meaning more than twenty people altogether, meaning we filled up any place we stepped into.

Being with the rest of them was what I knew. You and I had always been with them. Couples who had been your friends long before you gave birth to me, and then, when you had me and they had children, couples whose children had become my friends the moment each of us came into the world. They were what my summers had looked like: my friends, the stories and the bikes and the constant dares, but also the adults, there to spoon food in someone’s mouth or assign chores or hug one of the younger ones. That year all of them were camping, and I was staying with you and Stavros and Dimitris in actual rooms and away from them. That was new.

Stavros was careful around me; as if I were a stray he could scare away and then have to deal with the consequences. But I had known him for months, and you seemed happy with him, said you were happy with him when asked directly. The holidays were important to him, and he looked at Dimitris and me with watchful eyes to see how we got along. He was watching Dimitris constantly, they all were, to assess how he was, and I tried to drag him away from that, keep him close to me and around my friends, because we were better with sadness than the adults, less scared of it. I only minded strangers thinking of us as family, which, although logical, scratched. Stravros and you kept correcting people, spelling out our relationship to one another to waiters and taxi drivers, I imagine more for Dimitris’ sake than mine. I could call my dad. I would spend the rest of my summer with him and his partner, the other half of the puzzle there and waiting for me. Dimitris could not do that anymore. He only had Stavros.

One morning you came back from your walk, while I was eating breakfast, and told me you’d got me a puppy. I couldn’t have it yet, I would get it when we were back home, they would send it to us, as if it was a letter. Your smile was so wide. I had wanted a dog for years, and I had tried begging, tried crying, and nothing had worked. And you decided I should have one, out of the blue, the same way you handed me a phone. We had been on the island for a few days by that point. You sounded less and less like yourself.

You showed me a photo of the puppy with its soft floppy ears. I thought of the pools and how deep they were, how old, how the water was so clear you could always see the bottom.

***

“But do you feel okay?” I asked.

“I haven’t been sleeping, I told you. I’m taking sleeping pills. Nothing is wrong,” you said, while your face told me something was wrong; your mouth downcast, your eyes too wide, anxious to convince. 

“Why aren’t you sleeping? Are the pills helping?” I hugged my knees to my chest, looking at you. I was looking at you a lot, but it didn’t help, because you looked like you, but didn’t act like it. 

“I’m just not. A bit. It’s okay.”

***

We stayed on the island for ten days. When we went back home, I was shipped to my dad’s apartment and then carried to the other side of the country. Weeks passed. My skin continued getting darker and darker from the sun.

Every time I talked to you on the phone, I cried. You told me you would tear down some of the walls of your apartment, move my things to a different room. You told me other things as well, nothing making sense. I told myself it was the island, but we weren’t there anymore. 

When they told me you would be hospitalized, I wasn’t surprised. You stayed in the hospital for three weeks. You seemed like yourself after that. Nobody would tell me the diagnosis when I asked, so I asked you, and you said it was the menopause, together with the sleeping pills, together with the drinking. 

“I went a bit crazy, but I’m okay now,” you said.

There was no puppy waiting for me at the end of the summer. The apartment stayed intact. I kept the phone. 

***

My legs were half entangled with his and the night had broken the warmth of the day enough to make the touch welcome. The hammock was still and sharing it should have been awkward but wasn’t. We didn’t quite fit, both of us wearing something close to our adult bodies, but we made it work. We weren’t strangers anymore.

We were alone, the rest of you somewhere not that far away. It was quiet for the first time since we had arrived. Until that moment someone had been calling my name constantly to ask or tell me something or complain about how I should have been there and wasn’t and now they had to tell me about it instead of living it with me.

It was a weird balancing act, how the four of us were together with the rest, but also independent, making our own plans, not always joining them. Once in a while, someone would make a grab at me, sometimes literally, usually one of the younger ones, who were vocally unhappy when I failed to materialize when they wanted me. 

That place was a kind one, and beautiful, the mountains with their stone villages just as close as the sea, the beaches enchanting. Up in the mountains there were trees that were hundreds of years old, their trunks enormous, bigger than rooms. We were camping that year and the ground underneath my back felt right, and so did the sun, even when it warmed the tent to the point of boiling. There was a pier close to the camping ground that stretched out towards the moon. Some evenings I sat there with Dimitris, and we talked and talked, the breeze trying to make the summer lighter. 

But that night I was sharing a hammock with him, although there was a second one, our legs intertwined, his palm on my calf, made to look accidental.

“Do you wish someone else was here, with us?” he asked, his fingers pressing down lightly. “Do you miss anyone, when you are with me?”

There was the sound of cicadas, confused by the artificial light, and the whisper of voices from further away, and the silence.

I didn’t sleep much that night, but pretended I was asleep when you stepped into the tent, arranging my body into my usual sleeping position, on my side, regulating my breathing. You tried to be quiet, not to disturb me, and I congratulated myself on my performance. 

***

The summer had ebbed away into autumn and there were no warning signs, although if there were, I failed to see them, and the fact of it was what remained.

The living room was as warm as always that evening, all orange pillows and lighted candles. I had cooked and we were all drinking wine. Stavros and you were sitting on the couch. Dimitris still sat close to me, but not as close as before.

As the evening stretched out, you started verbally attacking Stavros, bringing up small and bigger things, relentless, your connections apparent only to you. You moved from one point to the other, a litany of blame, and threw your anger at him one word at a time. You did not care that Dimitris and I were in the room. You did not care about how that should have been a private conversation, between you and Stavros. 

Stavros and Dimitris left, more baffled I think than angry or worried. I listened to you call a friend, happily married, and scream at her to break up. I went to bed and I could hear you roaming around the house for hours, while I was drifting in and out of sleep.

The next morning, you weren’t there. You had left me a note, half a page, unconnected sentences, reading like a madman’s song or a suicide note, the signature alone familiar:

Love always,

Mum.

I called my dad. “Mum is not okay,” I said and stopped. He told me you were in a friend’s apartment, the friend you had called the previous night. He knew because that friend had called him to tell him you were in a frenzy, and she didn’t know what to do. You were screaming and crying, she said. You wouldn’t stay still, wouldn’t sit down. He told me that he’d go and find you and see what could be done, and he would come to get me afterwards. 

Hours passed. I looked and looked at my hands and found my fingers trembling. I went through the motions: I ate, drank water, put clothes on. Sat on the sofa and looked down at my hands.

My dad knocked on the door while the night was settling in. His face was ragged. He hugged me before opening his mouth. You were in a private psychiatric clinic, he said. No, I couldn’t see you.

***

Days passed. Those who knew what had happened looked at me from the corners of their eyes and turned away when I looked at them head on. I stayed in your empty apartment most days, went to my dad’s place on weekends, took care of myself.

You were hallucinating the morning they put you in the clinic. They didn’t know what else to do with you. Pretty much a textbook manic episode, the doctors said, like the one you went through on the island. Only they misdiagnosed you that time. Bipolar disorder, the doctors said, a curious case, they said, it usually manifests during the teenage years. There’s medication, they said, we are trying things, we’ll see what works.

 ***

It was two weeks before they allowed me to see you. The day was bright and the clinic was on the outskirts of the city, half in the forest. The trees were green, although autumn was there. Dad kept the windows down and the smell of resin blew through the car.

A nurse placed her hand in the middle of my back when I said I was your daughter. She led us upstairs, unlocking all doors before her and locking them behind her. They weren’t real doors, just a sequence of bars. There were bars and locks everywhere, and the bars on the windows cut the view in abrupt strips, the trees outside moving slowly because of the wind. Somewhere a woman was screaming, the sound dulled through the walls. She hardly stopped for breath. 

On your floor, I met someone else before I got to you. Another woman, her face etched deeply with lines, her hair down. She came to me, said hi and hugged me, as if she knew me. The nurse looked undisturbed. The woman started petting my hair, and it seemed to make her happy, so I stood there, smiled at her, allowed myself to be petted. I thought of how touch-starved she must be, and I hugged her tightly before the nurse led me to your room. 

The door was open and the room itself was bright and airy. There was a window. It was barred, like all the rest. You hugged me and you looked like you. You were coherent. Aware. You smelled of cigarette smoke. You held your hands in a weird way, not letting them hang, elbows bent and hands close to your ribcage. I would come to call this your T-rex move and associate it with too many sedatives swimming in your body. The sedatives also played with your voice, which sounded less alive, as if coming from a distance. 

I don’t know what I expected to find. Relief perhaps. I didn’t find anything.

***

That was a story, as all things are. I told it to Dimitris quietly, both of us staring out at the black sea and not at each other. I gave him the details, the bare bones of it, the truth. It was the last summer we would spend together, and I think we both knew. I offered him honesty as a parting gift.

I told him of your stay in the clinic, and of the long months after, how they kept giving you the wrong medication, how you either could not sleep or could do nothing but, how you would lie on the floor and beg me to help. It went away at the end, the episode ending, mania followed by depression, followed by a slow healing; the kind that often doesn’t look like progress. Followed by the almost-certainty that it would happen again, only a question of time. 

He took it all in, the waves breaking next to our feet, the sea and the sky and the sand all black but edging towards color as dawn approached.

*

Maria Schiza is a writer and translator from Thessaloniki, Greece. She is currently reading for
a Creative Writing PhD at the University of Edinburgh, researching mediated looking and
bystanding through ekphrastic poetry. Her recent publications include ‘Body Boundaries ii,
iv, v, vii, viii’ in Coastal Shelf and ‘Fishermen at Sea’ in The Ekphrastic Review.