When they were both relaxed in the leather seats he
leaned forward to speak to the driver. "Stop at the Vienna Cafe
on the way out of the city so we can get some coffee, then head to the
airport." Chavdar squeezed June's arm. "Would you like a cappuccino
before we set off? I have to stay awake on the flight to finish some
"No thanks. I am more in need of
a nap than caffeine. I like falling asleep on planes."
"Would you like a Valium to relax?"
"You have Valium?"
"Yes. They are like sleeping pills.
"I know what they are."
"I take them when I have too much
work on my mind and can't fall asleep. They are harmless. Sold over
Claire had taken Valium. That was reason
enough to refuse, but June had not been sleeping in the new apartment.
Most nights she would sit by the window for hours on end alone, listening
to the howling of wild dogs and the wailing of car alarms. "I have
slept with her. Okay, I have." When Chavdar was with her, June
still did not sleep, but went over and over the absurd events that led
to this strange man being beside her in bed, and why it was that she
allowed him to continue to come. Other nights it was a cat in heat in
the courtyard or a child crying upstairs. I have slept with her.
Okay I have. I have. I have. Hail hitting the balcony and a rat
scuttling through the crawl space, her mother clapping in the audience
and Ethan gunning his Mustang's motor below her dormitory window. She
was so, so tired.
June squeezed Chavdar's hand. "Yes,
please. I do want one."
Generous as ever, he gave her two.
The crescent shaped bay in Mykonos was
dotted with brightly colored fishing boats. Whitewashed houses were
stacked on top of one another, climbing the hill that rose from the
sea. It was not tourist season, but the weather was unseasonably warm
and the outdoor cafes were packed with beautiful Greeks away from the
mainland for a weekend holiday. The women wore expensive sunglasses,
and their hair was pulled back severely, making their elegant necks
seem even longer, their bone structure even more regal. In loose linen
suits and three-hundred-dollar sandals, they sat, drinking frappés
with men who sipped ouzo and seemed to grow tanner and more gorgeous
by the second.
While Chavdar checked them into their
hotel, June removed her shoes and walked down to the small stretch of
sandy beach. Fishermen were dumping barrels of shiny, silver fish out
of their boats into troughs. Seaweed circulated in dark green patches
in the otherwise clear water. June walked out to the edge of the beach,
sat on a rock, and dangled her feet into the water. Attached to the
rocks, just below the surface of the sea, June saw a reddish-orange
starfish. She waded into the water, lifting her skirt, to get a closer
June had never seen a starfish before,
and as she approached, it seemed to her that the strange animal was
raising one of its fat, triangular arms to wave at her. She laughed
out loud and bent down. The laugh died in her mouth. The starfish was
sawing off its own arm against a sharp piece of the rocks. Slowly, back
and forth, the animal twisted its body, pushing and pulling. The rock
was like a dull razor, and soon the arm broke free. The wave carried
the chubby red tentacle toward June, and she scrambled out of the water,
cutting her own foot open in her haste. Her blood was the same color
as the starfish arm.
"I saw a starfish trying to kill
itself," she said to Chavdar when she joined him in the hotel lobby.
The porter had just arrived to take their bags up to the room.
"I said, I saw a starfish trying
to kill itself."
"Why are you talking that way?"
"I don't know."
"Why are you limping?"
"I cut my foot. I cut my foot open
when I saw the starfish trying to kill itself." She grabbed her
foot, took off her shoe, and showed the two men the bottom of her foot.
Chavdar made a face and took her elbow.
"I think you need to lie down."
The porter shook his head. "It wasn't
killing itself, miss. Don't worry. They just do that."
"It's normal?" asked June.
"It's nature," answered the
porter. As June was limping away, the porter leaned toward Chavdar and
whispered, "I'll send up a doctor."
The first few days in Mykonos passed pleasurably.
Each afternoon came and went in a haze of fragrant floral aromas and
distant laughter. June was at home, giddy, dizzy, feeling as if she
had stepped out of Bulgaria into the Malibu beach print hanging on the
wall of an Istanbul hotel. Out of stench into perfume, from pain into
paradise. From one man to another. She had vague twinges of regret but
the exhaustion was like amnesia. She slept twelve hours a day.
In the evenings, June and Chavdar would
feast on seafood past midnight in the Greek taverns. They picked at
enormous salads, overflowing with oily brown-skinned olives, sweet red
peppers, and slices of feta cheese. They finger-fed each other from
decorative platters of shellfish and toasted each other with bottle
after bottle of wine.
After dinner, when the ouzo started to
flow and the bands started to play, June would twirl onto the dance
floor with the Greek women, and beckon to Chavdar. Sometimes he joined
her and sometimes he watched. While the women swayed and swirled their
arms and fingers to the music, the men would kneel around the edge of
the dance floor, clapping their hands rhythmically to the song, paying
homage to the dancers in an ancient tradition. When June grew clumsy,
as she always did now at the end of the night, Chavdar would scoop her
into his arms and carry her away. Sometimes she did not wake up, and
he would caress her lifeless body and put her to bed.
One night at an outdoor beach cafe, their
waiter, a young handsome island boy, picked a handful of wildflowers
from the courtyard. He took them to June, who was on the dance floor.
June slipped the largest and most exotic flower behind her ear, and
then continued to dance sleepily, the bouquet dangling from her right
hand. The boy smiled at her, and she thanked him by blowing him a kiss.
He blushed as if falling in love. Chavdar appreciated the sight of June
drenched in flowers. While she was dancing with her eyes half-closed,
he rose and walked toward the kitchen. June didn't even notice he was
Chavdar found the waiter in the back,
taking a pail of seafood shells to the garbage. The Greek boy looked
up and smiled at Chavdar for a split second before the fist came crashing
down into his face, again and again and again.
Back at the table, June saw a light splattering
of red droplets across Chavdar's jaw. "What do you-" She stopped
in mid-sentence while reaching out for his face.
June covered her mouth with her hand and
"What is it, what do I have?"
"Something. Something on your cheek."
Chavdar touched one deep red speck. "Seafood
sauce," he said, gesturing to the fried calamari platter on the
"Seafood sauce?" she asked,
"Of course," she repeated, and
reached out to dab the boy's blood off Chavdar's jaw with her light
blue napkin. She needed to believe him, but her hand shook violently.
Chavdar grabbed it and squeezed, harder
and harder, until the shaking stopped.
Alone in their hotel room, Chavdar would
turn the radio to traditional Greek music, and June would dance just
for him. Drinking scotch and smoking cigars he sat and watched, sometimes
clapping slowly to the beat like the Greeks, while she spun and sang
and sometimes tripped over herself. After she shed her summer dresses
and jewelry, she would continue to dance, closing her eyes and hugging
herself. "Keep dancing," Chavdar would whisper, when she began
to look tired. His face was hidden in the shadows. "Don't stop
until I tell you to. Don't stop until I'm ready for you. Come here.
But don't stop."
She would dance toward him, swinging her
hips back and forth like a belly dancer. He often liked to grab her
around the small of the waist and use one hand to tilt her torso back.
Then he would pour a thin, cold trail of scotch down between her breasts.
As he began to lick her from the belly button upward, he would murmur
against her stomach, "Don't stop moving. Keep moving. Keep dancing
until I tell you to get in the bed."
Though it was June, it did not look like
June, because she no longer wore her big, eager, and easy smile. Instead
she looked entranced, drugged, on the verge of falling. When she began
bumping into the table, or strangely giggling at the floor, Chavdar
would stand up and pull her into the bed.
When he had finished with her, he would
become tender again. In these quiet moments before the sun came up,
June could forget the way Chavdar looked when he was displeased. She
would slip out the package of Valium he had given her, and take two
or three, depending on how much she'd had to drink. In the mind-numbing
comfort of the tranquilizers, she could forget the way his voice became
accusing and condescending within seconds. The Valium made her forget
where her husband was, and with who, as well as the words Yankee
Mafia bitch and I slapped my mom so goddamn hard. It was
a pleasant retreat, and she went there often. Far back inside this safe
place, she closed her eyes and hummed old Abba songs from when she and
her sister were girls. "Dancing Queen" drowned out
the ringing of Chavdar's cell phone. She sang just loud enough to fill
her own ears; "Feel the beat of the tambourine, oh yeaahhhh."
This way, she did not have to hear his conversations with the agency-the
ones that made her sick with an indescribable fear. She did not have
to remember the light spray of blood splashed across his handsome, cruel
It was in this early morning state somewhere
between waking and dreaming that June felt attached to Chavdar, grateful
for his fingers tickling along her spine, flattered by his lust and
lavish generosity. In the last moments before she succumbed to the sedatives,
she felt a lovely contentment. Sofia seemed as far away as Los Angeles,
Ethan less necessary to her than Chavdar, and James a figment of her
imagination. It was easy to imagine that there was no reason at all
for sadness. After all, every mother dies and divorce is common. She
snuggled deeper into the cool sheets, imagining a brighter future. In
Mykonos, that future was only as far away as the sunny afternoon awakening,
and would consist of only more dancing, drinking, and drowning herself
as pleasantly as possible.
Downstairs the Greek music
started to play as the family who ran the hotel began preparing for
the breakfast crowd. Though the ocean was too cool for swimming, people
would be getting up for walks along the shore. Kids would search for
seashells and stomp on balls of seaweed. If they were alert, they might
see a fourlegged fire-colored starfish on the rocks, just starting to
regrow its missing flesh.
The bed undulated beneath her like waves,
and June thought with awe and horror about the reddish-orange starfish.
It wrenched its own arm from its body, little by little, until the severed
piece was free and floating away, dead. It floated through a pool of
Dishes clanked downstairs, and the smell
of baking bread permeated the room. Chavdar snored beside her, his heavy,
hairy leg stretched across her pelvis. She was pinned, but she didn't
dare move. Staring at the ceiling, June recognized her own approach
to sleep by the drugged and incoherent repetition in her mind of swimming
ocean images. A sea star was self-destructing but not dying, performing
the amputation of its arm over and over. June lay perfectly still. Her
green, half-closed eyes slowly traversed the ceiling, where she saw
scarves floating in water, arms floating, the color red streaming from
the cut on her foot, the color red streaming from the nose of a young
and beautiful boy. It's nature, the porter had said. Barely awake, June
contemplated the merits of evisceration while life went on in the kitchen
below. She couldn't believe it was already a new day, and couldn't help
wishing it were ending instead of starting. Ending and ending and ending.
It was a comfortable thought to carry her away.