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Authors: Katerina Cosgrove

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Intimate Distance

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Intimate distance

Katerina Cosgrove






‘Keep me,' – I said to him –

‘let me be only one – even half – the whole half (whichever it is),

not two, separate and unmingled, for nothing is left to me

but to be the cut – that is, not to be –

only a vertical knife-slash and pain to the core –

nor will even the knife be your own. ‘I can't resist,' I said to him –

‘keep me.'

Yannis Ritsos



tired, we always had sex. Zoi's room was fragrant with woodsmoke from the surrounding hills, black with rain, his shutters closed against the svelte noon light of winter. I was exhausted by nightshifts and travel: the terrible, smiling politeness of new love. Still in my sweater, I held him loosely, afraid to show too much need. We made-believe it was late at night with not a glimpse of the sky outside; the teeming streets far below, washed clean of meaning, blurring any distinction between here or there.

I had no clear concept of where we were, tracing my finger in a crooked line on the map as I walked from my hostel to meet him. He wanted to go home to Athens as soon as his contract ended – for the family, if nothing else. He was the primary breadwinner, and they were struggling without him in the new Greece. I didn't fully realise then, refused to understand, how his background defined him. I felt only the slight chill of how much father, mother, brother in the abstract counted for. Tribe, clan, cabal, bathed in a rose glow. It made me stop to examine his motives, and in the very next breath banish the thought like a blasphemy.

He still called the city Ephesus the way his ancestors had, or so he said; ancient Ephesus Paul wrote epistles to, admonishing its inhabitants like naughty children. I always laughed.

‘Don't be such a wog.'

‘What's that?'

‘Aussie slang. You wouldn't understand.'

I tried to soften it, lighten up. ‘Why are you so mean? Why does everything have to be perfect?' I didn't know how to answer, except to be vaguely ashamed that making him wrong somehow made me feel more right. I'm a stickler for names, places, dates – I couldn't bear it when he forgot or just didn't care. I have a fierce memory for birthdays, numberplates, phone numbers, can recite long passages of poetry by heart. Rumi, Hafiz, Gibran, Cavafy: all the clichés. And Ritsos, though most people haven't heard of him. I called the city Efes for the ancient part, or Selçuk for the new. It wasn't until I got here that I felt Turkish at all. In Sydney, I'd automatically sided with my Greek mother, not the Turkish father I could hardly recall. Yet Efes it was. Our conversation would end in laughter or a fight if we were both in that sort of mood. Either way it remained insubstantial, unresolved, ephemeral.

I didn't think Efes was like Greece at all. Oh no, Greece was infinitely better. But then again I'd never been there. I'd never been anywhere. This was the first time I'd been out of Sydney, drawn to this ancient coastline in some inchoate need to find out about my roots, make peace with my father, show myself I could survive on my own. The survival part was exhilarating; I loved counting my millions of Turkish liras, doling out daily rations of lamb kebab and buying a few
saddlebags to take home in my backpack. It was the other, deeper needs I hadn't yet mastered, or even entertained in any serious way.

And there was the guilt. I'd left my mother behind in a nursing home. Her Alzheimer's had been getting worse in the past two years, and it got to a point where I couldn't look after her anymore. I packed up our home and left, trusting a neighbour to water the miniscule garden. Of course Zoi, with his old notions of loyalty and respect, thought I was heartless. Part of me felt that too. But I was used to being called that, even by my mother in the days when she could still remember my name.

I stopped in this little town south of Istanbul, perhaps because I was afraid of going onwards to Greece, meeting relatives my mother had long since lost contact with, explaining my presence. And the Greece of the past two years was something I'd only understood through news items and edit­orials: burning buildings, enraged protestors, lootings, torched streets. It felt like a country with nothing to lose – a lot like me.

In Selçuk, where my father was born, there was nothing to see, no relatives to meet. They all left for Australia or Germany in the seventies. I didn't even know where the house was, or if it was still standing. I strolled around lanes and alleyways, wondering if any of the buildings I passed were once his childhood home. I longed for some connection: smiled at shopkeepers, tried out my Turkish phrases, saw my own sharp nose or eyes in another girl's face. I ached for that sense of rightness again, wanted to escape into the fantasy of belonging, being whole. But I was already tired of being alone. It was only an hour-long boat ride from the Turkish port of Kusadasi to the Greek island of Samos. There I could find my mother's sisters, her many cousins; gravelly voices I'd never met or touched. Or I could stay in Selçuk and manufacture some remnants of my dead father's life. Journey among the shades, be a character in some mythic drama. So I stayed. I waited at the hostel for somebody to travel with, read and re-read my Ritsos poems, dared to hope for a union with the idealised homeland. One day, in a fit of disgust for my dreams of rescue, I traded the book with an Irish backpacker for the latest Dan Brown. He was the only person I'd spoken to all week. The other backpackers – tanned, lean, almost-twenties like myself – came for only a day to make a whirlwind tour of the ancient sites and didn't even spend the night. I envied them, puzzled by their ability to belong anywhere and nowhere.

I found a job opposite the station, working in a café where most of the regulars were tired and disgruntled, wanting to drink thick coffee and smoke
, not talk to me. They liked looking, though, commenting with their raised eyebrows on the sun-bleached tips of my hair and my exposed arms, at the quick way I set down saucers and cups without a rattle. At first I squirmed at their combined attentions, then used it to my advantage, moving around them with the air of someone in charge. I worked long hours and convinced myself I enjoyed it: the obscurity, the physical exertion, those late nights when the owner put harem music on loud with the tourists all gone.

I met Zoi there. He was a regular, I'd serve him coffee on breaks during his shifts. He came in three times a day, a man who always looked tired, and in demand. It gave him an air of nobility. That and his unshaven face. One day, after puffing on a cheap Turkish cigarette and gulping down a short black, he gave me his mobile number. Wrote it slowly on my workpad: Zoi Caras, in careful English script. A Greek doctor; working for a year in Emergency at Selçuk's City Hospital. Fleeing the unravelling of his hometown: Athens in flames. Now the IMF and big banks had stepped in, and with a return to the drachma looming, life at home had been ill-paid, unpredictable. He was treating his stint in Turkey as a holiday, he said. If he'd wanted to make some real money, he would have gone to London or Berlin. I found it hard to believe him, but he intrigued me. So the next night, after work, I decided to call him. Somehow I wasn't nervous. I stood at the window of the hostel lounge looking out at the only park in Selçuk. Trees with bare branches, naked, shameless. Dusty earth illuminated green and a loud game of soccer whooping and circling in and out of the light.

Selçuk was a part of town rebuilt now in drab grey stone, honeycomb buildings. Zoi lived in what was once the old Greek quarter of Sirice, a lush hill village not five minutes away. He didn't know what it had been called when the Greeks were still there, and the Turks affected not to remember. The villagers still lived in the manner of their Ottoman ancestors: balconies of timber fretwork, no running water, terracotta roof tiles threatening to topple onto the cobbles below. In the population exchange of the twenties all its Orthodox Greeks were shipped back to the stony mainland and replaced by Muslim Cretans. The problem was the Greeks couldn't speak Greek and the new Turks didn't understand a word of Turkish. Who was Greek and who Turkish? And how could anyone really know?

All that was long ago, and the abandoned villas and desecrated churches didn't hurt me the way they did him. Sirice was the saving grace of my travels, those few narrow streets he and I spent our time in together, perfumed and redolent of old familiar loves, old Levantine joys; a small vivid box of gold and blue in an otherwise unbearable city.



in our last few days together, no matter how late, no matter how tired we are. Or so I tell myself. We don't merely have sex. It's still different with us. It is. He's not like this with everyone. But am I? Lately I've come to watch us more intently in the mirror on the dresser; not with wonder and amazement as before but with a growing unease, shame, a faint conviction that our frenzied movements against each other have become futile and even ridiculous.

I remember Efes: when he was different, loyal. When I was, more to the point. Our love was simple too, like a good landscape, the arid hills of his ancestral village, hiding nothing in the Greek glare, in the white summer light that flays doubt away. When I look further, most of my doubts aren't to do with him at all. It's all about me; the dithering, lack of emotion, absence of trust. I don't even like using the word trust, smacking as it does of psycho­babble and cheap spirituality. I prefer to use the word love, covering a multitude of sins. I love you but I'm leaving. You love me but I can see that you hate me, too. Do you love me? And then, how much? At a loss to quantify it, to understand, to allay my fears, Zoi replies, ‘Why do you ask such stupid questions?' Then, relenting, ‘Yes, I love you. I love you more than anything.'

Now it's early evening and twisting light rains over trees I don't know the names of. So many things I can't name, although I've been in Athens almost a year now. I'm a child learning to speak for the first time, feeling my way in this foreign, yet achingly familiar, country. The trees fascinate me with their whitewashed trunks and thwarted branches. The way they're pruned does that to them; stops them from growing, following their natural form. Their leaves are dusted with soot.

We're high on a bluff overlooking the city and the sea. This suburb, once sleepy and discreet, has become fashionable. Our café table is wedged among dozens of parked cars and mopeds. Even in post-crisis Athens, after the riots of the past three years, people still like to drink, and dress up, and be seen. The strident music, the screech of Vespas, make it hard to hear what Zoi's saying. He's talking at me, his mouth moves in the ugly way it crumples when he's upset. He brings his hand down flat on the table and my glass jumps and topples, making a dark cherry stain on the tablecoth.

‘Won't you try to understand?'

He's talking to me. I turn the glass upside down on my palm.

‘You don't understand,' he says again. ‘You don't have family, a father, brothers.'

I'm distracted by the waiter. He leans too close and changes the paper tablecloth for a fresh one. Zoi glares, impatient for him to leave us alone.

‘You'll never understand.'

He's shaking his head at me.

‘You have no sense of these things.'

‘What things?'

I'm not really listening anyway. It's all been said before. Instead I worry about our son. It's the first time I've left him since he was born seven months ago, and only at Zoi's repeated insistence that we needed to talk, alone. Every day he badgers me, ‘Look, Pan's so happy with my mother, he'll never even notice you're gone. You're too attached, Mara, too clingy. You're spoiling him, making him a crybaby.'

My breasts ache. I hope the milk I expressed yesterday and this morning – slow, painful drops hitting the side of a sterilised bottle – will be enough. Is Zoi's mother looking after him properly? Of course she is. At least it can't be said she doesn't do her duty. But is she looking after him the way I want? She's probably sitting in the apartment now giving him raw eggs and honey. Propping him up on cushions in front of Greek soap operas while she washes her hair. It's way past his bedtime. I hope he goes to bed without distress, without any screaming. I look down; two spreading circles continue to widen.

‘No sense of responsibility, of duty.'

I'm perturbed Zoi has just echoed my thoughts, instead using the Greek word for duty –
– weighty, bowed down by time. He sighs, as though despairing, and I can't help but think this is a theatrical sigh.

We should go back now. I want to say it, lean forward, casually suggest it's time to go. But I don't. Zoi seems to be waiting for something, waiting for me to speak, to make some sense of what's happened to us. A wave of pain comes over me as if from very far away.

‘Zoi, I'm going in a week. I need to see my mother. And I'm taking Pan.'

I watch for his reaction, wary. He doesn't reply, merely turns his head to look at someone else, a woman crossing the road with a cigarette dangling from her right hand, gold cross blinking from between her breasts. Then I see him smile and am surprised as he stretches his hand all the way across the table, now so clean, so white. He crinkles the smooth paper in his attempt to come near me. I surprise myself too as I put my hand out to him, fingers spread wide, and allow him to rest his palm in mine. We stay like that for a moment, no longer. I become embarrassed and unloose my fingers from his, tenderly, so as not to hurt him. The waiter brings me another drink and I clasp it in both hands, glad of the excuse.

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