Winter Bliss by Lakis Fourouklas

He had always been her confessor; a strange a thing to be, is it not? He was the confessor who loved her with all the might of his cowardly heart but never said so, and he was her buddy, the man who was always there for her, in illness and in health, during her falls from grace and her stubborn efforts to climb back up the ladder of life again. He was there then, but never during the in between times, not when it really mattered to him. He wanted to be her lover, her man, not just a shoulder to lean on. Life, he thought, had cheated him.

It keeps doing that actually, since even now, years later he’s still alone. Not that he haven’t met any other women in his life, he had, a few, but none like her. She, Maya, was the only one he ever wanted, really wanted. He wanted her for who she was, for her sweet insanity, for her little dramas, for her ups and downs, and for her smile, and her touch, for her ability to bless him with a feeling of belonging in a world that always felt foreign to him.

He’d known her since they were sixteen, the bittersweet high school years. She was one of those girls that carried a haunted look, as if there was just loneliness and sorrow in their eyes, and in their souls. Her eyes, so beautiful and so dark, reminded him of shiny black wandering sails, as they traversed time and again through the corridors of pessimism and despair. But yet she was beautiful. Every time she smiled, something that didn’t happen so often mind you, it looked and felt to him as if she was transformed, like she’d metamorphosized into somebody else, a bright young soul that could spread light and joy all around her; a light and a joy she didn’t even know that she carried inside.

It was that look, that rare smile, and even the way she moved, slowly like the mist on a summer morning by the beach, that made him like her. Marios felt enchanted the very first moment he met her, and she liked him too, but no more than that. So the one was in love and the other was not. Same old story, one would say. But Marios would make sure that the story wouldn’t end in sadness and in pain. He’d keep his feelings under control, he would never let her know how his heart ached every time he saw her, how his body lusted for something that it could never have.

So since they had no chance of becoming lovers, they became friends, and thus they still had each other, for better or for worse. They’d spend a lot of time together, in class and afterwards, taking some short trips on the weekends if given the chance, sharing their thoughts, savoring their special moments.

Sooner or later though their school days came to an end and in the blessed year 2000, the only millennium that any of them would ever get to see, university studies was what awaited him. She stayed in Athens and got a job at a shop in Monastiraki, since her grades were not good enough to allow her to continue with her education, and he moved to Thessaloniki where he enrolled at Aristotelio University to study architecture. However they never lost touch, the hundreds of miles of distance that separated them did not prove enough to keep them apart.

She thought of him often, he thought of her more, and many times they would call each other in the middle of the night, to talk, and to listen, to fill the void that that separation had created in their everyday lives. I’m never happy, I’m never satisfied, she’d complain, and he would feel sorry for her. And he would think that, I can make you happy, but never say so. He lacked the courage, and he lacked the luck, as he used to say to one of his new friends.

He was content with his new life, not happy, just content. He took things as they came, at his own pace, changed the things he could, had the serenity not to try to change the ones he couldn’t, and all the rest of the clichés. Yet he missed her, badly. He missed her fleeting touches and her rare smiles, he missed caressing her short black straight hair and embracing her almost transparent body. He told her that, often. I miss you Maya, he would say, I miss our moments.

And so did she, actually, but she would never say it. He was her buddy, her best friend, the man she always needed but could never have, because he valued him too much. She had some special feelings for him but she wasn’t certain if she could call them love; love love not friendly love. If she ever lost him she would never forgive herself. It is better this way, she thought, for both of us.

Was it though? If it was why then didn’t she ever now have that feeling of wholeness that she felt when she was with him? Her body had met many men, her soul only one. The one night stands were not something uncommon for her but the release they offered had hardly been enough; sooner rather than later she was hungry again, for affection and love, the things she couldn’t really have.

And then she decided to pull her act together, to go steady. She met a decent guy, Nikos, and spent quite some time with him. He’d come to her place to hang out and make love and she’d go to his, they’d go out with friends, or by themselves, they’d enjoy some unique moments together, and yet, she felt kind of empty. Only when she talked with Marios on the phone she’d feel her heart fill with joy; only then the things she experienced before would gain substance. He gives me what I want, and even though he’s not here, she thought, he gets me.

That had always been her problem, nobody could get her, nobody but him. So a few months later Nikos would unavoidably hit the road, only to be replaced, not long after, by Giannis. Giannis was different. He was the man that every woman would like to be with. He had money, he was smart, he was tender, and he was clueless. I like him, a lot, but he’s stupid, she’d complain to Marios, he thinks I’m interested in his money, in his gifts. The fact is she couldn’t care less. She didn’t need many things, she was not interested in wealth and luxury, all she needed was somebody to love.

That affair lasted almost for two years. Giannis may have been clueless, as she thought, but he had a good heart, and he cared deeply for her. The thing was though that she never felt like she belonged in his world. The rich boy had rich friends, and when they went out they went to places that she didn’t like, places where she had to dress-up to enter; high society places. My wish is to live and die in my jeans, he once told him, and he laughed. Sweet boy, sweet little boy.

Marios knew everything about her, have heard all her stories, and given her time and again his honest opinions, or when the need arose, told her what she wanted to hear. He was always happy to talk to her, always eager to listen, and that didn’t make life easy for him. It made it much harder actually, since his girlfriends couldn’t really understand his connection with that woman. Cut the umbilical cord, one of them told him, cut it now. But he didn’t. He couldn’t.

Elena was the first girl that found her way into his life when he arrived in Thessaloniki. He met her at a little café by the beach that he used to visit regularly early in the afternoon, before the evening crowds would start flooding the scene. He was reading one of his books and taking notes, and she did the same. And then their heads rose, and their eyes met. They smiled to each for a fleeting moment and moved on with what they were doing. That happened two more times during the same week, but when their fourth meeting took place they’ve decided to talk. And they did. And they kept doing that for many hours.

He liked her, he really did. Maybe it was because she didn’t look like Maya at all. She had an average body, long blond hair, and eyes that sparkled in shades of green. And she was smiling, almost nonstop. He’d say to her, I’m sick of you, stop smiling now, and she would smile to him, and he would smile back. She was like sunshine but he missed darkness.

He told Maya about her, and she said, I’m so happy for you, you deserve some happiness in your life; and she thought, she’s not you; I am you.

They’ve only spent six months together. She broke it off. You’re not here, she told him, and that was it. She’d read him. He was sorry to see her leave but at the same time he felt certain that she’d made the right call. He wasn’t there. He’d never be.

And then came Katerina; temperamental Katerina. Her ups and downs were so sudden that they would always manage to take him by surprise. I’m a nutcase, she warned him, when they met. And so am I, he replied, but time would prove that he was no match for her. She had fiery red hair, dark eyes that reminded him of Maya, and a body that could benefit greatly from a diet, but she didn’t care, and neither did he. Now, if I could put Elena and Katerina together and create a hybrid, it would be just like her, he thought; her.

Katerina was good for him, a teacher of sorts, she made him realize things about himself that he didn’t know, but he couldn’t really keep up with her. When I am with you I feel like I’m racing against time, he said, and proposed that they should take a break. Let’s get something straight, she replied, you’re not dumping me, I’m dumping you. And she did. After that, whenever he met her accidentally in the streets, at a café or a taverna, she would give him the finger, while Elena would give him a hug. I lead an interesting life, he’d think and smile to himself, interesting but lonely.

In the summer of 2003 they met again, after almost three years. He went down to Athens to visit his parents and some friends, going against his own policy that dictated that once you go to a place you stick to it until you move to a new one.

It was on a warm July morning that he visited her at her workplace at Monastiraki, a shop that targeted tourists who wanted to buy mementos from Athens. She didn’t see him coming. She was placing something on a shelf as he walked in and approached her from her blind side. Nice, he said, in English to tease her, and she, without turning back to face him, said, I’m coming. When she did turn she almost looked like struck by lightning. She remained still for a moment, taking him in, realizing that it was indeed him, and then she rushed into his open arms. It felt so good to be able to hug each other again, to encounter the same smooth smells from the past, to remember how it used to be. Their embrace lasted for long, and when they separated she heard her calling her boss, Andrea, I’m taking the day off, and I’m leaving now. And they took off.

They walked down the street without talking, just holding hands and staring at the things they could not see. They reached the end of the narrow lane and turned left, avoiding the cafeterias, and then right towards the Thission railway station. It was a bright day, and they wanted to walk, it was becoming a hot day, but they didn’t mind it a bit. All that mattered was the moment, nothing else.

They followed the sightseeing route, taking the so-called pedestrian road towards Acropolis; so-called because it was almost totally taken over by coffee tables and traversed almost nonstop by motorcycles and the occasional car. One of the laws of the land, thought Marios, turn a blind eye to everything, and smiled to himself. She caught that smile and asked him, what? He told her and she half-laughed. As if things were any different in Thessaloniki. They weren’t.

They reached Acropolis and sat under its shadow gazing at the never-ending city and the ancient Agora just below them. They didn’t stay there for long though, as the first tourist buses have started arriving one after the other, and soon enough the place would be crowded.

So they walked downhill, this time towards Plaka, where they found a quiet little coffee shop and sat for a frappe; no milk, no sugar. They had the same bitter tooth. That place seemed to be bathed in the twilight even though it was still morning. The dark interior illuminated their thoughts in a way and that led them from silence to silence. They sat there for long, taking short sips from their frozen glasses, and studying each other’s eyes.

You’ve changed, she said. And you haven’t, he replied.

He felt like she was embracing him with her eyes, and that’s one of the things that he mostly liked about her. When she looked at him like that she made him feel happy, and loved, she made him feel special.

This is what I like when I am with you, I mean here or anywhere, but not on the phone, when I am with you I don’t need to talk. She said that. And he agreed. He felt exactly the same. What’s the use of words when you have eyes?

When they left it wasn’t even noon. They had a lot of time to spend, the whole day. Piraeus? she asked and he shrugged his shoulders. So Piraeus it was. They went back to Monastiraki and took the old slow moving train that had very little resemblance to the brand new Metro.

Piraeus was hot and bursting with life. Way too many tourists but also locals where boarding the ferries in search of the island that would host their summer dreams. They’ve decided to follow suit. But since they carried no luggage and had to return during the same day, they decided to go to Aegina, one of the closest destinations.

They opted for one of the old slow moving boats rather than the Flying Dolphins that traveled the seas in lightning speeds, since they really wanted to enjoy the ride; the sea and the sun, and the seagulls that followed the path created by the boat on the waves.

I’ve missed you, he declared briefly, almost in a whisper, as if afraid that the words could fracture the magic. I didn’t, she said; you only miss what you cannot have, and I always have you in here —she pointed at her heart— you’re with me every step of the way.

The trip proved way too short for their taste and at the end they couldn’t call it a day, so they’ve decided to stay. She called her boss to say that she wasn’t going to work the next day either, and he called his parents to tell them that he wouldn’t return home for the night. They had enough money to get by, so they found a room, bought the things they needed, and when the night had finally come they decided to play it the tourist way, which meant going to a taverna for dinner and after that do the traditional bar-hopping.

Things went well, as far as the drinking, and the hugging, and the laughing were concerned, and just before dawn they found themselves sitting on the rocks by the sea. They were quiet most of the time, letting the alcohol slip out of their bodies, and allowing the memories of the distant past and of that very same day, flood their senses. They were happy. They didn’t say it but they felt it. Here, in his arms, is where I belong, she thought. And he thought the same.

As the sun started coming up they headed for their room. Their walking pace was deliberately slow, as if they were trying to postpone something that was destined to happen. A light wind was blowing from the south, bathing them with the aroma of the morning sea, and awakening their senses. They wanted each other so much; they needed each other so much; and they both knew it.

Later rather than sooner they reached their tiny room. They entered quietly like expert burglars. They opened the window just a crack to let the sun breathe new life to the shadows in which, up to then, the place was enjoying a night’s rest.

There were not many things in there; just a couple of chairs, a dresser and a table, and the bed. They sat on the bed, and forced their bodies to get close to each other, to touch. She made the first move, a gentle caress of his hair. He responded by pulling her into his arms, in a hurry, as if she was about to escape and run away from him. They kissed; gently at first, more passionately after, and then…

No, she said, breaking away from his embrace, we can’t do this; we can’t risk what he have for something that may never be. And, you’re right, he somewhat reluctantly replied, we can’t.

They lay down on the bed not touching at first, until she rolled into his embrace. We are crazy you know, she said. I know, he whispered softly into her right ear. They were crazy, for wanting each other and doing nothing about it, for needing each other, and allowing that need to keep them apart. What if I lose a friend? they both thought; then what? That was the million dollar question.

They remained there, wide awake for more than an hour, and then they got up, gathered their few belongings and headed for the port. They’d take the first boat out. She’d head home to sleep and he’d go to his parents’ house. They’d follow their different paths yet again.

During the next couple of weeks they met time and again but never on their own. They went out with common friends, visited their old hangouts, they ate and they drank, they laughed in public and cried in the dark. And then he left.

She missed him, she missed him like hell. I shouldn’t have left him go, she thought, but on the other hand if they did end up together, even that wouldn’t have stopped him. He had two more years of studies at the university, so whether they liked it or not, he had to stay in Thessaloniki. On the other hand the distance between them gave her a kind of freedom; unsatisfying though it was. Her relationship with her parents was just as bad as always, and she didn’t have anyone in her life that she could call a friend, not a real one anyway. As for her job, she couldn’t care less. She didn’t love it nor hate it, it was just a way to make ends meet. I should follow him, she thought; you must follow him, she tried to convince herself, but she just couldn’t do it. What is it you’re afraid of, huh? What?

She knew the answer, nothing had changed, she was afraid that if she went after him she’d lose him for good, and she couldn’t afford that. Damn you Marios, she cursed. Damn you, for who you are. Damn you, for the love I feel for you.

She felt miserable. Smiling was never one of her strengths but when she did smile, in the past, she used to make the world look a bit more bright, more illuminated, in that brief moment of joy. Now she just couldn’t do it. She couldn’t smile and she hardly laughed, and even that only ever happened when she was watching a comedy at the cinema or elsewhere, and she rarely had a good night’s sleep. Damn you, Marios.

She loved him and she knew it well; she always did. However as they were forever friends she convinced herself that her love for him was lacking the erotic element. Where there’s no spark there’s no flame, she thought. But what if…?

There was always something special going on between them, right from the very beginning. He fell for her the moment he lay eyes on her, but he never brought himself to admit it. He just couldn’t do it. At first he was afraid of rejection, and then of losing her altogether. If he couldn’t be her lover, he could always be her friend. Something is better than nothing, he thought back then, but he knew that he was fooling himself, just like he did now. He was trying to forget her, to make her go away like a phantom of the night, to erase her image from his memory. But how can the mind ever forget what the body and the soul feel? He longed for her. He lusted for her. They should be together right now, but… Always that but… The distance, the friendship, the differences, the cheap excuses.

The truth is that they were not as different as he thought, actually they were more similar that they'd dare to admit. They wanted the same thing and they were afraid of it. Their bodies commanded go but their minds yelled stop. They were both at a dead end.

Before too long the summer was over, his studies began yet again, and then the autumn all of a sudden came to an end. During all that time they kept talking on the phone about their everyday lives, about silly things and more serious ones, but never mentioned the subject that mostly mattered to them. They thought that time would heal the wounds, as if it ever does. And then one night, he just couldn’t take it anymore, he said, I really miss you, I wish you were here. Silence ensued, a brief one, before she admitted that she missed him too. After a few awkward moments they hung up.

It was the middle of December and the weather was arctic cold in Thessaloniki, but the city, dressed here and there with the white cloak of snow, looked as beautiful as ever. Christmas was fast approaching and one could feel a change in the air, as if the people of the city were getting ready to change their ordinary lives forever, to transform them into something new and extraordinary.

He never liked Christmas; he never liked any holiday for that matter. It’s just people spending money they don’t have, he would answer to anyone who asked him his thoughts about it. But there was something different about this Christmas, he could feel it in his soul, and his half-frozen bones, something was actually going to change in his life. Yet, he didn't know what.

He was walking in the cold streets of the night as his phone rang. It was her. Hello love, he said, teasing her. I’m here love, she said, not teasing him. She was at the train station, just arrived from Athens. Stay there, I’m coming, he replied in a haste and hailed a cab. In ten long minutes he was there. A minute later he was holding her in his arms. What a surprise, he whispered. What a wonderful surprise!

She only carried a small backpack. He’d be surprised if she carried more, since she wasn’t that kind of traveler or that kind of woman when it came to that. She believed that too many belongings made life complicated.

Do you want to go straight to my room or into the city? he asked. We can take a cab if you like, he offered. Let’s walk, she said. And they walked, through the cold wind, and the light snowflakes, through the night traffic and the Christmas decorations, all the way to the promenade.

There were not many people walking around at the time. It was almost midnight and the weather was merciless. But Thessaloniki is one of those places that never sleep, so it was more than likely that most of the young people of the city were indoors somewhere, eating or drinking, listening to music or playing one of the ever popular board games.

He asked her if she wanted to go somewhere like that, to sit, to talk and to drink, but she nodded no with a light movement of her head. And then she took his gloved right hand into the equally gloved left hand of hers and said, let’s go and sit on that bench. Sit? On a bench? In the snow? We’ll freeze to death, he objected. At least we’ll die together, she said, without a smile.

So to the bench they went. It was just partly covered with snow since it was under a tree, so it wasn’t too bad. They sat closely together, gifting warmth to each other. He wanted to ask her so many things but he didn’t. She wanted to tell him so many things but she wouldn’t. There’s no need to talk, she thought, our body language speaks volumes; we belong with each other.

Time was passing slowly like a silent drizzle, and fast like a furious hurricane. They were cold but they felt warm inside.

When she set off for this journey she wasn’t sure what to expect. What if he had a girlfriend he deliberately forgot to mention? What if he didn’t feel for her what she felt for him? What if her lust had led her into a trap that would only produce pain and destruction? But all her fears had no foundation whatsoever, as she realized the moment she set eyes on him. He wanted her just as much as she wanted him, no question about it. What she was doing now was just delaying the inevitable, savoring every moment until the final act.

She hated Christmas, just as much as he did, but she was certain that she was going to love this one. Let my Christmas miracle happen, she wished upon the hidden stars; let it happen. She squeezed his hand, and he turned his gaze from the dark sea towards her. His eyes were shining and they were wet at the corners but she didn’t think that the cold was to blame for that. Let’s go, she said in a whisper and got up. He obeyed, in his unique silent way.

Now she felt like she was in a hurry and if she knew how she'd probably lead the way to his house at the fastest possible pace. But his house was far. Do you want to take a cab? he offered again. No, absolutely not, she answered, I want to walk, and get to know our city better. Our city?

So they walked back the way they came from for a while before changing direction. They reached Lefkos Pyrgos and passed it, and then cut across the always busy Niki’s Avenue. Mitropoleos, Tsimiski and Egnatia Odos were to follow as they headed uphill, following Agia Sophia road towards Ano Poli. The city, as expected was bursting with indoors life. All the cafeterias and the bars were full, the tavernas busy as ever, and the Gyro and Crêpe shops were serving customers food at a furious pace.

Lovely, she said, just lovely. Everything looked beautiful to her that night; the crowds, the Christmas decorations, the sounds, the people, the light. It’s as if I’m in a dream, she thought, and it’s Christmas, she added as an afterthought and smiled to herself. I’m happy, she said, all of a sudden stopping him cold. I’m happy, she repeated the words, as if to make sure that he heard them; this is… I don’t know how to put it Marios, this is… winter bliss. She started laughing, right there, in the middle of the street. And so did he. She took him by surprise, and he loved her for it.

When they stopped laughing they continued their quiet stroll towards his home. He opened the door to an old building and said with a playful smile, after you my lady. She mockingly bowed her head and entered. They climbed the stairs to the second floor.

His apartment was small but cozy; a corridor of a living room, a cozy bedroom, a small kitchen and a tiny bathroom; almost Spartan, just the way she liked it. What more could one ask for? It didn’t take her long to explore it, and then she sat on the small couch. I need something to warm my blood, she declared. How about red wine love? I’m sure you have a bottle hidden somewhere. He smiled and, more than one, he said and hastened to fulfill her wish.

Thus there they sat; drinking wine, talking about the present and the past in small sentences, laughing every now and then, but never getting into details when it came to their everyday lives, since they knew all there was to know about each other already. And they didn’t talk about was happening at that moment. How she found herself there with him. They both knew the answer, of course they did, but for some reason they were no longer afraid about what tomorrow would bring. This is it, they thought, the moment of truth has arrived.

Their love making was tender at first, more intense later. They hungered for each other but at the same time they were trying to savor every moment, to enjoy every kiss, and breath, and touch, as if it was their last. They went to sleep not long before dawn, and their sleep was peaceful, serene, for the first time since that trip to Aegina.

When he woke up a few minutes after noon he found her right where he left her, by his side. This time though she was leaning on an elbow and looking at him straight in the eyes, staring at his bare soul. He wanted to say something, to ask her what? but he didn’t. He was certain she’d soon say whatever she had to say. And she did. I’m moving here, she said, if that’s okay with you that is. I can’t stay away any longer. We’ve wasted too much time already, the fools. I’m willing to take the risk it if you do the same. So what do you think? As if his broad smile was not enough of an answer he rushed to say, I’ve been waiting for this moment my entire life, or rather since I’ve met you. I always knew that you were the one and… She cut him short. Oh, just shut up and kiss me, you fool; my fool.

Thus their love had finally blossomed, a few days before Christmas, and in the heart of winter.

Lakis Fourouklas 

The image was taken from here.
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