September 19, 2015

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Gstaad—it was the summer of 1953, in Greece. We spent two months together, had a platonic love affair, and then she got married and died soon after. She was older than me, but not by much, and I had turned sixteen that summer. Her name was Maria Agapitou, and she was a rare beauty, at least in my inexperienced eyes.

An inner voice tells me to beware of nostalgia—after all, I last saw her 62 years ago—but at my age the past is richer than the future, so here goes. We met in a park at a northern resort in Athens, where I was sitting on a bench and reading Tender Is the Night. She took the bull by the horns, so to speak, and hinted in perfect English that the book I was reading would inspire me to lead a dissolute life. I sure hope so, I answered. That did it. We started to meet every day in that beautiful jasmine-scented park among the pines. She was taller than me by an inch, had light-brown curly hair and blue eyes, and would be described as Pre-Raphaelite, a term I didn’t know existed back then. We went to the flicks, as we used to call them, in an outdoor cinema, where she caught me looking at her sideways and told me to look at the screen. I also tried to hold hands right away, but she pulled hers away. Most of the time she wore a black dress, but she wore white one day at a party given by a friend. She knew everyone there, a crowd of mostly twenty and over. “I see you brought your “Americanaki,” said the hostess. (The little American.) No one bothered to speak to me so I got too drunk—so drunk, in fact, I had to lie down on a sofa near the entrance, where I proceeded to pass out. Later on I found out that my father had dropped in and had seen me asleep, and the old boy was rather proud of the fact.

“That love is a disease we all know and agree upon. Young love, of course, is ten times worse.”

We didn’t see each other for some time after that—I didn’t dare go to the park—but then she once again walked into my life while I sat around there pretending to be reading. What I didn’t know then but later figured out was that beauty is founded upon romance, and romance is founded on mystery. Maria would repulse every pass I made, I would say nothing but hide for a couple of days hoping against hope that my disappearance would make her change her mind, and then the saga would start all over again. Was she a prude, a virgin, an experienced woman who liked to torture? I never found out. She treated me both like a child and like a lover. Young love can be traumatic as hell, and I was really traumatized. All I did was think about her—stopped playing tennis, stopped going to the brothels, stopped seeing my friends. My mother noticed I wasn’t eating but blamed it on Greek cuisine.

That love is a disease we all know and agree upon. Young love, of course, is ten times worse. As the summer drew to a close I became more and more desperate. She also seemed upset. We just kept meeting and then feeling desperate. There’s nothing like unrequited love to drive one over the top. But was it unrequited? She looked at me as being one, a look I can remember perfectly 62 years later. She also spoke beautifully, in a language I wasn’t used to, with torrents of adjectives when literature was mentioned, and in sensuous phrases that left me thinking about them long after she and I had parted. Looking back, there was nothing of Emma Bovary about her, nothing needy or wanting. She spoke in a cool, almost lyrical tone, in what to me sounded like superbly crafted sentences. The end was too painful to recall. One moment I was talking to her and shyly trying to avoid her gaze, the next I was on an airplane flying back to school and prisonlike conditions. I did not take her address or write to her from prison, but during Christmas I remember my mother telling me that she had gotten married. Then, in the following spring, I heard that she had died.

Was it true, had she got married, had she died? I should have realized what a moral coward I was because I never wanted to find out. Was it my mother’s way of making me forget about her? Could she still be alive? Basically, I don’t want to know. But I did dream about her last week. And it upset me.

The ghastly but undeniably brainy fraud, Sigmund Freud, defined love as overvaluing the object but undervaluing reality. Freud was a complex-ridden smarty-pants who probably never experienced the sudden glow, the chemical effect that random attraction is all about. He was, nevertheless, taken seriously by many, so he’s got a lot to answer for in these psychobabbling times. Mind you, Freud and the summer of ’53 have nothing to do with each other. That time has to do with the flickering ecstasy of a long-ago memory, and the impression that a young woman made on a teenager.


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