We pulled up to the house and I looked up at the balcony, covered in tomato vines and a forest of other plants and flowers. I was momentarily blinded by light reflecting from one of the metallic discs hanging from the ceiling, spinning lazily in the barely existent breeze. They were there to ward off the birds, to say, “we don’t want you pecking here, find some other plants to molest.” Once upstairs I would notice that the shiny discs were CDs, and in silent moments I’d pour my attention into wondering what musicians, if any, had been chosen to frighten the birds.
We got out of the car and I looked at him over the roof, standing there in the middle of the road as he squinted into the blazing Athenian sun. He caught my eye and I knew he was saying, “I’m nervous, I don’t want to be here,” but this wasn’t his family, not his momentous occasion, and for once I steeled myself against his discomfort. This day was important to me, and I wouldn’t let him have it.
“Ready?” my uncle was at my side, a cigarette hanging carelessly from the side of his mouth.
I tore my gaze away from the imploring glances of my boyfriend, “yeah,” I clapped Uncle on the shoulder, “let’s go.”
I didn’t look back. I kept my eyes firmly pressed against Uncle’s back as he led me through a squeaking gate, past a jungle of trees and branches that as he pushed out of his own face would whip back into mine, through a white door and up a dimly lit flight of stairs. My stomach, slowly, torturously, turned over inside of me and I could feel every excruciating movement as my innards gushed towards my knees. And then we were there.
My aunt had been waiting for us and she pulled me into her and kissed both my cheeks. With her arm around my shoulders she guided me through the musty apartment where remnants of someone’s lifetime—maybe even mine—hung on every wall and cluttered every shelf, pervading the dusty half light with a feeling that bordered on nostalgia, but that hinted at something far more ancient.
I’d lost awareness of the other bodies as I stepped out onto the balcony and was presented as a gift to the two wrinkled faces waiting for me. They burst into an ecstasy of tears and proclamations, flinging themselves into me and sedating my movements with a thousand kisses and embraces that seemed unnaturally firm for their ageing fragility. Here they were: the family I had never met. My deceased papou’s sister and her husband; the ones with whom I’d spent 25 years sharing awkward long distance birthday phone calls, and the ones who had spent 25 years eagerly awaiting the mail for photos of me, to see how I’d grown, how I was evolving. We knew each other so well; we didn’t know each other at all.
They led me to a chair and each one took a seat on either side of me—neither let go of the hand they’d already requisitioned, rendering me prisoner to their awe-filled silence. They both gazed upon me, both unable to look away, all four eyes swelling with tears. My papou’s sister’s lip quiverred dangerously as she squeezed my hand and sobbed in Greek, “if only your papou was here to see this.”
At the very same moment my own emotions threatened to spill onto my cheeks, he appeared, tall and slender, in the doorway. Neither my left nor right hand paid him attention; they continued instead to stroke me, hold me, be with me. We locked eyes for a moment, and it was the exact second in which I knew our relationship was over, and also, ironically, the first time we’d ever looked at each other with a mutual understanding. I felt relieved—relieved to be wedged here between these people whose love was suffocating the oxygen in the air, relieved to know that we could just stop, just stop all the nonsense, it would be over soon.
And so my Uncle, now on the balcony too, whispered something to him, and they declared they were going for a walk. Again, relief flooded me. And again and again as they vacated the balcony, as I heard the front door slam and as their voices in the front yard faded with their footsteps. Relieved that I could now breathe in this love, and hear stories about my papou from when this sprawling, crowded, polluted city was little more than a rural village, I eased into my surroundings, letting the glinting shards of light from the spinning discs reflect my mood into the atmosphere.
“He used to sit out here on this balcony,” my Great Uncle said, gesticulating wildly, “and he’d play the flute! All the children would run down the street and sing out to each other that your papou was playing, and they’d all stand under the balcony and listen to him in the afternoons.”
“He loved it,” my papou’s sister said, brushing her expression against a quiet melancholia before beaming back at me, “and he used to dance. He loved dancing. He would go down into the street and dance whenever the mood struck him.”
“And you look just like him,” she continued, reaching out her hand to my face, “if I didn’t know any better I would say he was here right now. You have his spirit.” She sighed, “Do you know how much your papou loved you? He would call us up and tell us he was the happiest he had ever been, with you.”
I had to stifle my tears, then, as she cried quietly, lamenting the passing of her brother, the space between Greece and Australia, and the family connection that we were only able to make for the briefest moment. She cried because we’d been existing in parallel universes this whole time, joined inexorably by our blood but held apart by oceans in that paradoxical space of So Close And Yet So Far. I took her into my arms as I beat back my own urge to sob, and she released it all onto my shoulder in the heady afternoon humidity.
When it was time for her to reattach to the machine that maintained her kidney, she approached me with a half sadness that her exhaustion made impossible for her to clutch in any tangible way. She put a small box in my hand and I opened it delicately, fingering the prize inside—a ring from her youth. I let myself cry as I hugged her goodbye. We would never see each other again.