By: Stephen M. Fragale
Back in the summer of 2003 I was travelling the mediterranean as I took a hiatus from my job working as a correspondent for the London Times. The war in Iraq was all anyone was talking about. I was in the port of Patmos, Greece waiting for a ship to Italy when I met a young, homeless American who kept a small mouse in a water bottle as his only friend. I struck up a conversation with this young, lost American. He spoke in sentences that were broken and jumbled together and often would lose focus and stare into the distance. He told me briefly about his experience in the first gulf war. But I was surprised to find that his story wasn’t really about the war. It was about love. This is his story.
Leo was lost in a moment, long, delicate, like drops of rain from a fern in a gulley. There he sat, on the cold, hard stone bench outside the port in Pamos, Greece. He wore a sleeveless white t-shirt that was dirty from the wind and rain, and jeans that were ripped at the knees. He had thick, dark stubble from a week without shaving, and his hair was long and thick with curls like some kind of wild bird’s nest. His cheeks were sunken in from hunger, and the green blue veins in his hands and wrists were thick and jagged, his skin was thin and transparent like a sheet of cellophane.
Around the port, there were other strangers, straggling, waiting, hoping, and some perhaps even suffered from the same disease as he. His name was Leo, and he was lost.
At all costs he tried to keep his mind open and free. Yet he no longer tried to disguise it or hide it. He suffered from delusions, despair, and heartbreak. He chuckled to himself, he whispered, he talked, and he ranted. He looked through his backpack not paying much attention to the normal looking families that eyed him suspiciously.
Leo rummaged through his backpack, throwing worn and dirty clothes on the ground, toothpaste, a toothbrush, and deodorant that he had not used in a long time. Then he found it, his water bottle that had the neck cut off and tin foil wrapped around the opening and held together with rubber bands. He took the lid off, and out scampered a white mouse.
He fed it little bits of breadcrumbs. It ate from his hand. He held it in his hand and stroked its fur, cooing in its ear. He brought his face closer to the mouse and gave it little kisses. The tourists pointed and stared and even gawked in horror when he had to shove the mouse back in the water bottle head first. It looked as if the mouse’s head was too big for the opening of the water bottle, but somehow Leo squeezed its head through.
That was the best part of Leo’s day, the time he had to spend with his little friend the mouse. He got up and walked and half noticed the other people at the crowded port. They barely existed for him now. The sun was warm in his eyes and on his face as he walked toward the sea. He had actually managed to scrounge up enough money to board the ship, a coach seat, which meant he did not have a cabin but he could sleep outside on the hard plastic benches and smell the sea. He was not even sure about where he was going, he just knew he needed to be there, and away from wherever it was that he had been.
He was on the ship, even the other backpackers like himself, the college students, the hippies, artists, travelers, eyed him suspiciously. He could not understand why. He was still young, barely twenty- eight. They still had hope in their eyes. Leo just had a lusterless gray film.
Leo leaned over the railing of the ship holding his arms out like he was flying, hanging his head down so that he stared fixedly into the deep, blue, mesmerizing crash and tumble of the Mediterranean sea. He half contemplated standing up on the rail and hoisting himself over, into that deep, dark blue that would surely dissolve all his thoughts, and subsequent anguish. Somehow, he did not think he had the strength. Mostly though, Leo feared what she would think. Kim.
Leo curled up on one of the plastic rows of benches and felt the ship begin to move beneath him. He put his bony hands under his face for a pillow. Leo was not always this way. At one time, he was much different. He too had dreams, and ambition, and he thought he would have a family too someday, just like everyone else. All that changed when he met her.
He had been traveling around Europe for a month already. He had just gotten a new job in the spring teaching English literature in a small school in northern California after graduating with a Masters in English literature from his G.I. bill. He had served in the first gulf war but it took him a long time to get his life back together after that. He had hated the war and hated his part in it and still suffered from what he saw and participated in there. But now he was happy. He had finally accomplished something. He decided to celebrate by spending the summer traveling across Europe. He had already traveled through the island of Cyprus, a few Greek Islands, and much of Italy. In fact he was then in Venice where he spent most of the day waiting for a night train to Nice, France.
Leo went to a few museums. He loved the art, the architecture, and the baroque designs of the ancient cities. It excited and thrilled him. He even smiled when he was packed into a water taxi with so many other tourists that there was hardly enough room to stand and breathe. Still, he loved Venice, the city that was submerged in water. The green, brown water moved so feverishly and smelled of such a rich and exotic life.
When evening came ushered in on magical violins, flutes and magicians with strange masks, he sat calmly on a stone terrace with his thin muscled legs hanging over the side, looking at the water and writing in his journal. The people, walking and talking, moving frantically, afraid to stand still, filled with such life and energy, motivated him and moved him. He loved it. He loved them, he wanted to just reach out and grab them and pull them to him and never let go. Leo resisted and kept writing and thinking and breathing. The stars were pinholes of light that were fractured and bathed in sheer elegance, and it blinded him so he just shut his eyes softly and dreamed.
Finally, Leo made his way back to the train station. He sat on a bench and looked at his ticket carefully, trying to understand the foreign language and figure out what station his train would be arriving in. He waited an hour or more. Then he noticed all the backpackers rush off to a blue, red train and the sign overhead flashed, NICE. He walked up and down the cars of the train attempting to figure out which car was his, and then which sleeping compartment. He had never had a night train before, nor had he ever had a sleeper car.
He only had on a tank top and beach shorts but by the time he finally found his sleeper he was sweating profusely from the hot, humid Venice night. Inside, there were six small beds, three to a wall. Four of the beds were already occupied, by what looked like four young Japanese tourists. Two boys and two girls. They occupied the top and middle beds. Leo took the bed on the left that was only a few inches from the floor. He smiled and tried to say hello but they all were chattering away a mile a minute in Japanese. When he tried to speak English, they just looked at him strangely. He was exhausted so he set his backpack and other things down at the foot of his bed, plopped his head back against the thin pillow and paper like sheets and began reading from Don Quixote.
Then in she walked, happily, smiled, bounced almost, with a toothbrush and toothpaste in her hand. She had her hair straight back in a ponytail, a short light blue t-shirt, and very short shorts. She was small, petite, but had the largest fur brown eyes and skin like porcelain. She smiled at Leo as she lay down, her head where his feet were. She said, “You speak English? You’re English, right?”
“Yes,” he said, putting down his book.
“Wouldn’t you rather sleep down this end?” she asked. “Then our heads won’t be by each other’s feet?”
“Okay,” said Leo, laughing a little, “good idea.”
Her name was Kim and she was Japanese also, and had met the others that were sharing the sleeper car in Venice, but she had been traveling alone across Europe as well for about three weeks now. She spoke Japanese, Spanish, German, French, and English, which she had learned while studying in Australia for a year. They talked for hours as the train slowly swayed to the rhythm of the night and the other Japanese slowly drifted off to sleep. Leo and Kim discussed everything, whispered even, so as not to wake the others. College, education, philosophy, religion, meditation, traveling, dreams, books, the only thing they didn’t seem to have in common was that she was rather indifferent towards art. She could appreciate it at times but was not passionate about it like he was.
About three hours later, they agreed they should probably try to get some rest. In the dark, the white of her eyes seemed even larger than normal, glowing almost like a harvest moon. Kim was curled into a little ball facing the wall of the train which shook slightly, and Leo tried closing his eyes long enough to stop thinking about her.
Leo awoke before any of the others. Kim looked happy and peaceful sleeping. He tried not to stare. About thirty minutes later she rolled over, yawned, and smiled at Leo and said, “Good morning.” Leo immediately smiled back and wished her a good morning. He mentioned that he did not sleep well, he felt too cramped, too hot. Kim said, “Yes, sorry, but you’re a big boy.” Leo was not really that big, but compared to the small Japanese he shared the sleeping compartment with he could see how they might view him as big. Kim took her toothpaste and toothbrush and went to the bathroom to go brush her teeth. Just like the night before when he had first met her. Everything had seemed so simple then, now everything was jumbled in his mind. He already wished they had the night back, when he was only a few feet away from her, whispering across the space between the beds, talking, sharing their dreams. Now he feared once the train stopped they would both be going their separate ways. It was hard for Leo to find someone he felt such a deep connection with, so when he did it was easy for him to feel attached. He did not want to lose the connection this soon.
When Kim came back in, she helped Leo return his bed back into a seat. They all sat now, the Japanese conversed happy, and excited. Kim exchanged conversation with them a few times but she seemed more interested in Leo.
She said, “They just said they think I am crazy for traveling around like this by myself. They invited me to join them. However, I sort of like my independence. I politely declined. I will admit though sometimes I do get lonely.”
“Yeah, I know what you mean,” said Leo, “I sometimes get lonely too. Yet, I don’t think I would trade the experience I have had for anything in the world.”
“I agree,” she said, “the only bad experience I have had was when I was staying in a Hostel in Switzerland. I came back to my bed and found that someone had stolen my camera. I cried and wanted to go home. I was heartbroken because I had taken so many wonderful pictures on that camera, and so many wonderful memories. I called my Daddy and said, Daddy, I want to come home now. When he asked why and I told him, he told me to be strong and continue traveling, that it was not a good reason to come home. He said to be more careful with my things. I am glad I didn’t go home.”
“I am glad you didn’t go home either,” Leo said, and smiled.
“Thank you,” said Kim, “how long will you stay in Nice?”
“About three or four days I suppose. How about you?”
“I am only staying for one day; there is a festival I want to see in Barcelona.”
Leo was disappointed. Already he had pictured them together in Nice and when Kim had said she would only be staying the one day his heart sank a little. He even scolded himself a little for getting his hopes up so high on someone he had just met. Surely, Kim was not interested in him; he was too awkward, clumsy even. She was just being friendly and passing the time. They were just two travelers on a train.
When the train arrived in Nice Kim jumped down first and seemed to wait for Leo. Inside the train station Kim said, “You should go to the information center to go and see if you can find your hotel. I will go and see if I can get my tickets for my night train tonight for Barcelona. Okay?”
“Okay,” said Leo, “I will meet you outside the station.”
Kim smiled and walked away, disappeared into the crowd. The train station was packed with tourists and travelers. The line for the hotel information was long. Leo looked outside; he longed for the fresh Mediterranean breeze and clear blue pebble skies. Slowly, hesitantly he withdrew from the crowded train station. Leo often had mixed feelings when arriving into a new place, anxiety, apprehension, and excitement.
The street outside was busy and lined with hotels. Just across the street, he saw an old indigo blue hotel. He was afraid of losing Kim but was also afraid of her waiting for him and finding out he still did not have a hotel. Already, he feared disappointing her.
Quickly he crossed the street, climbed old terraced steps that led to the hotel. Other backpackers were there. He asked for a room. Yes, they had one available. He was excited and thrilled that he had run into such good luck. He paid and took the key. Leo climbed the stairs, sweating, with his heavy backpack, his heart beating fast because he thought of Kim outside the train station thinking he had left her, alone. The door opened, it was small, but had great lime green wooden shutters with the paint peeling off that opened to the busy, noisy street below. He threw down his things, quickly, and then dashed back outside to the train station and Kim, frantic now with each passing moment that they had lost each other.
Back at the train station it was still packed, he slithered in between brown and sweaty arms and legs. He searched faces, smiles, and awkward glances. Kim was nowhere to be found. He searched in and out, up and down, and could not locate her. His heart sank, his shoulders slumped, and just as he was about to give up and return to his new hotel, he looked down, and there smiling up at him, kneeling down and packing things into her backpack, was Kim.
“There you are,” he said, smiling.
Kim looked up, the whites of her eyes dissolving into the sun, and said, “Leo, I have been looking everywhere for you! Did you find a hotel?”
“Yes,” he said, “I have already checked in. It is right across the street. Come, you can leave your things there and then I will buy you lunch.”
“Really,” she said, “you don’t mind? Are you sure? I was just going to leave them in a locker in the train station. It is rather expensive though.”
“Come on,” he said, “I insist.”
Once inside the hotel Kim let her backpack slide off her small, thin, brown arms and onto the floor beside the door. She said, “Wow, you have such a big bed.” She sat on it and bounced up and down. “I love those green shutters, and what a great view of the street and just down the hill is the beach, I bet.”
“Well,” said Leo, “let’s get changed and then go find something to eat and then go to the beach. What do you say?”
“Sounds great,” said Kim.
The Mediterranean air was warm and bright as Kim and Leo casually walked down the hill to the beach. They both took a few things with them; both had bags in which they had beach towels and suntan lotion, books, and other things for the beach. At the bottom of the hill, it was lined with shops, restaurants, and more hotels. Just beyond that was the beach. The sky was big and blue. Yet to Leo, everything seemed white, stoned, and immaculate.
They picked a small restaurant overlooking the beach. They sat outside admiring the view. Leo ordered a cold beer and Kim a diet Pepsi. Kim told Leo how she was allergic to beer and wine, and whenever she drank her face turned red like a lobster. She ordered linguini with clams and Leo a seafood salad. Everything was good and everything was as it should be. Kim scolded him for eating so little, “Have some of mine,” she said, “you’re a big boy and need to eat more.” Leo just laughed. His whole life he was called skinny, or slim, and it was true he had put on a few pounds the last few years, but still he thought it was funny the way she called him big boy.
Down at the beach there was no sand, it was all pebbles and rocks that hurt your feet to walk on. It looked nice enough, but was hell on your feet. Carefully Kim spread out a blanket for them to lay on. She took off her shirt and shorts slowly. Leo tried not to stare at her tiny bikini, her porcelain skin, her ripe and budding breasts, and small, tight thighs. She sprayed suntan lotion over Leo’s shoulders, back, and chest, and rubbed her small, warm hands over Leo’s skin, slowly, softly. Then she commanded him to do the same. He did. Her skin was warm and soft; he wanted to bury his head there, his lips, to slowly kiss her, her neck and shoulders, her lower back.
After lying in the sun, they went in the water together. Leo helped her walk on the hard rocks, and held her up when the waves tried to knock her down. She laughed and giggled, and let her body fall into his. Kim laughed more when she noticed the other women who were topless. She asked Leo, “Don’t they feel shy?”
Kim had told Leo she did not know how to swim. Yet, she went in and seemed to bounce up and down in the water, just managing to keep her head above the water. She giggled more, as if there was something quite hilarious about a little Japanese girl keeping her head above such rough water. When they came in from the water Kim reached in her bag and took out an apple, one for her and one for Leo. They ate and talked, and squinted in the warm sun. After awhile they got thirsty so decided to leave the beach. They wandered around the street that lined the beach, and instead of getting something to drink, they got ice cream. They sat on a bench together, eating their ice cream, looking at the sea, watching all the people pass on by. When they were done, Kim licked her fingers and then set them down beside her, like a dirty fork or spoon. Hesitantly, Leo let his fingers graze Kim’s. Her sticky fingers and his lightly set atop each other. Like a lid on top of a pot.
Then Kim rummaged through her bag for her Polaroid camera, Leo smiled as Kim snapped photos of him. Then it was her turn, she posed against the bench with the sea and big tundra blue sky in the background. When the photo came out all Leo was able to notice was how her smile lit up the entire frame.
When they walked back up the hill to the hotel they held hands and Kim bought them drinks back for the room. Iced teas and bottled water. Once there Leo got a shower as Kim unpacked and rummaged through some of her things. Kim asked shyly, “Would you mind if I got a shower too?”
“Of course,” said Leo, “it’s nice. You will feel better.”
Leo lay on the bed in just a pair of shorts and stared out the lime green shuttered window and tried to imagine what all the sounds coming from the window meant.
When Kim came out of the shower she said, “Sorry for taking so long but it felt so good.” Kim stood in front of the lime green shuttered window combing her long, dark hair in the perfect afternoon light. The world ended and the world began anew in that perfect moment. Leo wanted that moment to last forever. For them to always be there; Kim standing in front of the window as he lay lazily on the bed and watched her with such beauty and grace. She seemed to comb her hair forever and the way the fractured light splintered that moment was unforgettable. He almost imagined her turning into a bird and suddenly flying through that open lime shuttered window, out over the apple green sea. He knew someday she would.
The rest of the afternoon they lay on the bed, he with his head propped behind a pillow, she sat Indian style at first, and combed her wet, black hair. They talked about politics, different cultures, and how important it was to have an open mind. They talked about war, injustice, poverty, and the atrocities committed in the name of religion. She told Leo how her mother did not really want her to marry a westerner but that her father did not mind; he just wanted her to be happy. She then said her mother would not mind as much if the westerner she married had dark hair and dark eyes. Then Leo kissed her. At first, he was afraid to, because she seemed so small, so delicate, so, innocent. He wanted to protect her, to be with her, to love her. Yet, he feared the moment he kissed her; she would disappear, or turn into the black bird and just fly away.
She did not fly away, she flew into his arms. And crashed and burned. Later that night they went out for dinner. It was a perfect night and they talked long into the darkness and silence that surrounded them. It took some convincing, but eventually Kim agreed to stay with Leo in Nice. That night they did not make love. Kim just lay with her head atop Leo’s chest and dreamed into the dark murky night.
Kim and Leo stayed together for a year, traveling, in and out of hotels, finding odd jobs here and there, her father sending them money when they were desperate once and had their wallets stolen from a pick pocket in Madrid. Leo had lost his teaching job since he never showed up. For awhile they both got jobs teaching English in Prague. They saw the world and experienced so much together and one day she whispered, “Leo, I think I love you.”
Leo said, “Kim, I know I love you and always will.” They were happy, it did not matter where they were, or what they were doing. Some day they told themselves they would settle down, they would pick a place, find a job, and start a family. However, for now, just being together was enough, and as long as they had each other, they knew they were home. Then one day she was not there, he woke up alone, her things were gone, just a small note saying she had a family emergency and had to go home, but she would be back. He waited, one month, two months, and three months. She never came back. She never called. She never wrote. He tried calling. But, the number was disconnected. He tried writing, but his letters were returned unopened.
The ship arrived in the port. From there he took a train, then another, and another. He would just keep going, and going, never stop. Never stop until he found her again and then everything would be just the way it was. Perfect, like stone. Immaculate. Statuesque.
He was back on the beach, but not just any beach, that beach in Nice where they spent their first day together. That perfect day. It was almost deserted because it was mid October, the off-season. He walked the beach, the rocks and pebbles still hurt, but they were cold now too. He did not mind. He even put his dirty feet in the cold water. The waves crashed and crumbled into him. Then he spread a blanket, the same blanket they had shared long ago, took off his shirt, and lay down, his chest bared to the sky in some unraveling of emotion. He closed his eyes. He heard her giggling next to him, and he closed his eyes tighter, so tight he wanted them to bleed. The blood did not come, only tears. With eyes still closed, he reached out his hand, lightly, softly; it came down against Kim’s soft, wet, sticky skin. He whispered into her ear, into the air, into the bottomless depths of the sky, “You have been eating ice cream again, haven’t you?”
Leo was lost in a moment, long, delicate, like drops of rain from a fern in a gulley. Only now Kim was with him, and somehow always would be. On the blanket lying next to Leo, was the Polaroid of Kim standing by the bench, smiling, with the sea and the blue tundra sky behind her.