By Michael Michailidis
“I don’t understand what they pay you for,” I used to tell her. We were the two oddballs from school, hanging out with each other because no one else would. A sad way to start a friendship, but it seemed to work. She wore baggy jeans and T-shirts a size too big, like she was trying to conceal a weapon. We would meet at the benches behind the basketball court when all the other kids crowded to see a match, the girls observing the boys playing and the other boys sitting on the benches, jealous. We listened to music from that yellow tape recorder that now feels as old as typewriters or grandfathers. Or as old as the unguarded ruins at the top of the hill overlooking Athens, a city that spreads in concrete stillness and metallic stoicism, certain that it will always be the ugliest thing that we will ever love. And we talked for moments of eternity, and pushed each other on the grass, and smoked and snorted whatever we could find until our eyelids closed under the stars and some faraway siren from a police car or an ambulance woke us up into our mortal, wasted lives.
When I saw her after that summer, she had transformed into a woman and the boys looked at her differently. She still hid under her clothes and snuck up on me from behind the benches. As she suddenly caressed my head from behind, a jolt ran through my body, remembering the bullies a few summers back, and the anger fired my eyes until her appearance sent me back into calm. It was precisely at that fleeting moment, when I would look at her with the hard face of anger, that her eyes would sparkle like night-bugs over the swamp at the end of the dried-up river. It took me all these years to understand how much she liked it.
By the end of our senior year, a few of the girls had started turning tricks on the streets. A common secret that circulated by word of mouth, until eventually everyone knew how much the other charged. They would stand on the street outside our school until an old car would pass, and, after a quick exchange of words, they would get in and disappear into the approaching dusk and the smoke from the exhaust. She did the same, which seemed normal at the time, and after school was over, she moved near the business district. She felt safer during the day and most of the guys took time from work to see her.
“I don’t understand what they pay you for,” was my constant tease whenever she did or said something stupid. I would push her away, secretly yearning for her touch but too proud to admit it. One night, stoned out of our heads, she dropped her keys in the sewer grid and looked at me with a smile. “I don’t understand what they pay you for.” I shook my head, reveling in her smile. Sometimes she would tell me stories from the guys she saw during work, most of them married. Some would only talk, others would hug and kiss, but most fucked for a couple minutes at a time. She made it all sound so mundane that I was left wondering why she brought it up in the first place.
I will never forget that autumn day when we climbed our hill for the last time, our pockets loaded with stuff, walking over the glass bottles from a thousand broken hearts, and the used condoms hanging from the bin. Just me and her and the blue skies of a country where people worshiped stars. And when our bodies warmed with intoxication, I pushed her once more and we found ourselves rolling together on the grass. I landed on top of her and by chance looked straight into her eyes. For a single moment I saw that sky and his passing clouds, wounded by a golden sun, and the sparrows blazing drunk towards a distant love-call, and, through them, the stars above, I saw everything reflected in her eyes, inside her dark, beautiful eyes. I finally said, “now I understand what they pay you for.”
In the years that followed, I learned to laugh at that memory, convincing myself that she was nothing but a treacherous slut. I threw bottles on the same hill, climbing it alone, looking up, trying to recapture that moment. But, somehow, I knew I was right from the beginning. That was what they were paying her for: the universe in her eyes.