November 11, 2017. Athens, Greece.
Maybe it was the quantity of illegible Greek beer. Maybe it was the free ouzo shots the bartender gave me. Maybe it was simple proximity to Ivan’s all-encompassing aura of doom, but when I woke up the next day, I felt ready to die. I tried to correct it in a novel and inadvisable way that involves eating no food, drinking fruit juice (the only words on the bottle in English are 10 FRUITS!), and grumbling.
I bummed around and moaned at nothing until a human entered the room and I had to put on a sociable face. She was a Norwegian, her own face too expressive to properly hide the constant undercurrent of anxiety, on holiday from finishing up marine biology school and putting off her thesis for as long as possible. I told her I just did that same thing for like 9 months, only without the zooplankton. Her Norwegian doctor friend was supposed to be coming in later, so she had some time to kill. Where I’m from, if you have free time, that’s time for eggs. We went and got Greek omelettes and carried on being bitter about academia.
Full of eggs and heavily salted cheese, I was ready to face the day. I really talked up Handle Row. We went poking around the flea market for it, but it was daytime and I wasn’t drunk, so Handle Row ceased to be. I think it’s a Narnia situation, and I wasn’t in the prerequisite state of mind to find the portal into the handle district.
We wove back and forth through the grotesque density of humans, poking around the flea market for, realistically, junk.
“In most places, you have certain areas that sell certain things,” she said, looking around at the chaos.
“Like Handle Row,” I said, advertising it again. I should really be receiving promotional fees from the Grecian Handlier Guild.
“Yes, maybe,” she said. “But here, they just sell everything at random. Hardware store, t-shirt shop, fish market, postcards — Oh! I need postcards!”
“The beauty of commerce. This part of Athens is basically just a giant junk drawer.”
She found a handful of dated looking postcards featuring topless blonde women, studied them contemplatively. They looked very 80’s magazine to me, like you’d find in the centerfold of a distressingly sticky publication with a name like “Buxom Beauties” or incorporating the word “Vixen”. It reminded me of the postcards my grandfather used to keep on the cork board on his door.
“Where are the naked men?” she demanded of the merchant.
“What?” he said, understandably.
“These postcards are only naked women. I need ones with naked men. Fat and old, preferably.”
He looked uncertainly from side to side, glanced at me for help. I shrugged. Out of my depth, kiddo.
“N…no,” he said. “All postcards, here.”
“Well that’s not very egalitarian, is it,” she said, reproachful and British (which, upon second reading, seems redundant).
“You’re not in Scandinavia anymore,” I told her.
okay, real quick. this blew my mind. who made this decision?
“when you think good indian food, think Gandhi, for some reason”
“Hungry? yeah, so was Gandhi *jingle*”
“Daily specials: Nothing”
“Please have the exact change you want to see in the world”
I’d been trying to outpace the winter, but it was getting too damn cold at night and I only brought one grey sweater, which is, judging by my attempt at club entry, the incorrect color for Greece. I bought a tasteful, water-damaged leather jacket for less than the cost of all those meat sticks yesterday.
It was around then the Norwegian revealed to me her True Name. To maintain the high standard of my anonymous and marginally racist (ethnicist?) system of nomenclature, I won’t print it here, but I will say that it is exactly one syllable from being Torbjorn.
I was jubilant, though I couldn’t rightly explain to her why. All my attempts at pronouncing her name were ill-fated, because my mouth so badly wanted to say Torbjorn.
When we got back to the room, the bathroom door was torn off its hinges. There was only witness: the Russian girl who hadn’t moved from the bed next to me in three days.
“What happened?” I asked. She gesticulated frantically, saying words in Russian. After that didn’t work for a while, she pulled up a translator app and showed me a paragraph that also didn’t tell me anything.
From what I gleaned from context clues, she came in from somewhere (I’ve never seen her leave) and discovered the bathroom door was wrecked. Not only was it off its hinges, the latch, which was the only thing that closed it, had been torn clean off the door and stolen. A few of the luggages had been opened and rifled through, as well. All of my stuff was in my locker, and when I checked, the combination dials had been switched around like someone had tried, unsuccessfully, to open it. I put the door back on its hinges and we left it to the proper authorities, whom would obviously never be notified because our building in the hostel looked sort of like a crack den.
We retired to the terrace and met up with Norway’s friend (henceforth, Norway 2) and a bunch of regulars from the past few nights. Canada and Austria were both up there.
“You made the right move, bailing when you did,” Austria said.
“Did you wind up getting into the club?”
They traded a look.
“We did,” Canada said. “The one that looks like the Chinese food place.”
“Wait, what?” Norways 1 and 2 busted in.
“To the untrained eye,” I said, “The club looked like a ritzy Chinese food restaurant. Except, with robots out front.”
“What are you talking about?” Canada asked.
“The… the robots, man. The guys on stilts, wearing the light-up aprons.”
“I didn’t see any robots.”
Did I hallucinate them? What’s happening to me?
“Oh, I remember,” Austria said. “With the blinking lights, yes.”
“No idea,” Canada said, shaking his head.
“How could you possibly… here, hold on,” I said, pulling up the video and reaffirming my sanity for at least the moment. “How could you miss them?”
“There was a lot of beer,” he said, and I had to concede that point. “Anyways, we paid the 10 Euro to get into the club, and it turned out to really not be our scene. Like, at all.”
“There were all these businessmen,” Austria said, “Everyone was wearing suits and drinking cocktails. No one was dancing.”
“And we’re standing there like this,” Canada said, motioning to his jeans and track jacket. “We had our free drink and left.”
“Ouch. Well, at least you didn’t have to deal with Ivan.”
“Who is Ivan?” Norway 1 (almost-Torbjorn) asked, and I warned them to stay far, far away from Lohan.
“He’s a Russian assassin who moonlights as a bouncer,” I said, like I was submitting for the approval of the Midnight Society. “He’s three meters tall, nearly 150 kilos of solid rage. He looks like a shaved gorilla. To look upon him is to know despair.”
“Oh, I’m sure he’s a teddy bear.”
“He’s three-quarters bear.”
“Hmmm! I wonder if he has a sister?”
“He ate his sister in the womb.”
“Or killed her when they were kids, definitely,” Canada put in.
“If there was a well, his sister definitely went down it,” I said.
“I think I’d like to meet this man,” Norway 1 said.
“Don’t,” I warned. “You’ll never be the same.”
“Are you going to have nightmares about Ivan now?” Norway 2 asked me.
“My life is a waking nightmare about Ivan. Listen. If you hear soft weeping coming from my bed tonight, you’ll know that’s why.”
A couple from Pakistan merged into the conversation, talking about eating goat balls. He said they were pretty good. We had a quick food discussion, whereupon I horrified everyone (especially the near-Vegan Norway 2) with tales of chicken-fried steak.
“Wait, so you… you wrap the steak… in chicken, or?”
“No, chicken isn’t actually involved,” I said. “You take a steak that isn’t good enough to be eaten as a steak, and you bread it like it’s fried chicken, and then you fry it. Then, you cover it with this thick white sausage gravy. You eat it with mashed potatoes, or with eggs, for breakfast.”
“For BREAKFAST?” Norway 2 was outraged.
“Americans have very fatty breakfasts,” Norway 1 said. “I’d love it, though. So satisfying. Even when it’s just the egg, and the sausage, the bacon, you know.”
Norway 2 made a face. You know the face.
“What’s sausage gravy?” the Pakistani dude asked.
“Fat,” I said. “It’s pure fat. It’s white, peppery cream with sausage drippings in it. It’s absolutely disgusting.”
I looked wistfully out the window.
“God, I miss it.”
“Y’know, when I was in Morocco,” Canada said conspiratorially, “One of the things on the menu was bull penis.”
“Bullpens?” Norway 2 asked.
She made the face again, only with wider eyes this time.
“Did you get it?” Norway 1 asked.
“No way,” he said. “Not a chance.”
“Come on, dude,” I said. “You weren’t even curious?”
“I’m not putting any kind of penis in my mouth.”
“Maybe it’s great, though,” I said. “That would be rough, I think. If it wound up being like, your favorite food.”
“It wouldn’t be my favorite food.”
“You could just try it,” Norway 1 said. “You wouldn’t need to eat it all.”
“Yeah, just a little,” I said, nodding. “Just the tip.”
Canada wasn’t budging on this one. Masculinity is a prison.
We closed the bar out and returned to our rooms. In my restless dreams, Ivan stared coldly from the haze with the flat, dead eyes of a goat, LED stilt-gundams flailing behind him, highlighting his malevolence with their unnatural gyrations.