"I hope you like dogs." Sotiria half-shouted as she fumbled with the keys to the front door.
"I love animals," I replied. Not as difficult as humans, I thought. I could hear the furious barking on the other side of the door.
"He's very nice, Sweety," Sotiria went on. "He was my Christmas present to Davida the year you come to visit us. Davida had trained him very nicely. But with me now ... I have allowed him to spoil."
She found the key and I followed her inside which sent the dog crazy. He charged at me, fangs bared.
"Robert! Oo-hee!" She shouted. "Is Julie!" I spoke softly to him, and he eventually calmed down, sniffing at me curiously.
"He's a crazy dog," she said "He's a bit...how do you say? Insecure? Since Davida's gone."
"Loss drives humans crazy too.." I thought and then tripped over a little table in the hallway, set it seemed, for the express purpose of blocking easy passage. There was nowhere else for it. From wall to wall, the apartment was cluttered—valuables, mingled with garbage, clothes, furniture and just plain old junk, all coated with a fine layer of dust so it felt antique.
"Sorry for the mess, sweetie! I haven't cleaned much since...." She trailed off mid-sentence.
I looked for an atom of empty space to put my bag, when I noticed; stuck into the hall mirrors; on every shelf, table and desk; in every size and colored frame; those blue eyes. In different pictures, at different ages, the same face, stared at me from every direction. The entire apartment was a shrine to the memory of my sister. I studied each picture. The ones in which she was smiling were few.
I picked up a recent picture. "She looks really good!" I said, remembering her sad, spacey eyes, and bony, drug-ravaged body. She had put on weight and looked healthier. Her eyes were clear and smiling.
"Yes, I told you," her mother replied, "she was better. I tell you sweetie, I don't understand what God wants of me?"
I shook my head. "I don't know." We shared a moment of silence, but I avoided her eyes. I’m not good at dealing with another person’s pain. Not knowing how to help makes me feel helpless. "This is your home, sweetie. Stay as long as you like, do whatever you like. You're my second daughter. Your sister love you. She loves only you. Thank you for coming to see me."
"No, thank you for having me." I knew it sounded odd, but I felt I must thank her. Thank her for giving me my sister, for caring for her, for loving her. I felt humbled that she would thank me, when I had done nothing.
"You come all the way from Africa. This is your home. Stay as long you want." There was nothing more to say, I knew. "Come, I show you Davida's room ... you can stay there if you like, or you can sleep in living room where I sleep. It’s up to you." We edged our way single-file down the tiny corridor, past a kitchen of dirty dishes and garbage.
I opened the door to Davida’s room. Compared to the rest of the house, it was surprisingly tidy. There were zebra patterned curtains matching a white and black couch-bed, with leopard patterned pillows. The room was small and crammed with furniture - a large cupboard, a table, a rocking chair, three shelves and a TV resting on a set of drawers. Like her mother, Davida had kept everything she had ever possessed. The clutter was also a mix of conflicting styles. On one shelf sat a metallic Gothic cross with a poster of vampires next to a large collection of CDs, ranging from 'The Cure', ‘Smashing Pumpkins and ‘Nirvana’. Mixed in between it all was a grimy, worn out Barbie doll with patches of missing hair; a masquerade mask, and some old yellowed candles. Again all coated with Athenian dust.
"Please, if you don't want to stay here, it's okay. You sleep where you want. I don't like you to feel uncomfortable..."
"No, no." I quickly interrupted her. "I'll stay here." The room, for all its clutter, was peaceful. It was as if I could feel Davida’s presence in the things she had left behind. Everything seemed to tell a story, and I was curious to discover through them, the enigma that had been my sister.
"Everything here is yours. You can take whatever you like. I myself have not been able to come in very often, even to pack her things. It is too difficult."
"Do you want me to help you pack her things away?" It felt mean to ask.
"I don't mind anything. I just cannot do it. Even my sister could not help me."
"I'll help you pack it if you like." Maybe it would help her move on.
"Sure sweetie. Do as you like."
I wasn't sure whether that meant she would let me change the room because I wanted to, or because she wanted to. So I did not change anything.
"I'm sorry, I have no food in the house. You are hungry for dinner?" I was grateful for the change of subject.
"I haven't been here much, I was away from this place for fifteen days. But now you are here, I will clean up this place and we will shop for some food. What do you like to eat? I have not eaten today."
"We could just walk to the nearest little place, and talk some more there?" I suggested, suddenly feeling the need for space and fresh air. She said there was pizza restaurant close by.
"Great. Let's go there. Oh, by the way, have you a jacket I could borrow? I haven't got any winter clothes."
"Of course. All her things are yours."
I opened the cupboard, which was stocked full of jackets, and picked out a long black leather coat.
It took us five minutes to walk to a crowded pizza house.
"Let's sit outside," I suggested. "I would like to know what happened...and the funeral...was it nice?"
"It was beautiful!" Sotiria lit a cigarette. "She was so beautiful. I went to shop for her dress with my good friend. And that day, I had enough strength to do it. All the other days I was not fine, but that day I felt strong." She took a deep puff. "We picked for her a beautiful bride dress. All white."
"She wore a wedding dress?"
"Yes, like a bride. Oh, and then I was meant to buy her shoes. Davida always liked to wear high heeled shoes. So I buy her shoes with high heels. She looked so beautiful. Like she was alive. Just sleeping." She took another drag of her cigarette.
I told her about my trip to Sri Lanka and the Tsunami relief. "Ah yes! Terrible thing. So many children die this year. Davida cry when she watch that on the news. And soon after? She die herself." Her eyes grew sad.
"The day I returned home, dad asked to speak to me," I continued, as I heaped salad on my plate. "He said my sister had passed away. I was so mad, I could not even cry. I told him her death was his fault."
"You told him that?" She perked up a bit.
"Yes. I said if he kept in contact she would never have gotten depressed and started taking drugs, and so she would never have died."
"And what did he say?"
"He said I was just upset, and needed someone to blame it on and not to be ridiculous."
"I am going to write that man a letter!" She squashed the butt of the cigarette into the ash tray and took a bite of her pizza. "Sweetie," she spoke with a full mouth, "I have been wanting to write your dad for a long time, but always I decided against it. Now Davida is dead...I want to tell him all the truth. I did not want to say when you came with him to visit, but Davida, she start drugs because of him. She did not understand why her father did not want to keep contact with her. She was a very sensitive child. She was very hurt."
"It was not just her," I assured Sotiria. "It was all his kids. Even me."
She grew quiet and we withdrew into our thoughts. She lit another cigarette, took another drag, eating as she smoked. Finally she spoke again. "You have suffered even more than Davida. She told me this. She said to me one day after you had left, 'Mom, at least I have you my whole life. Julie has no one. What kind of father is he? He is just using her. I don't want to see him again. He is no father. I only want to see Julie.' "
"She said that?"
"Yes. After that time, she want nothing more with your dad. She was very angry. But she always love you. You must remember that. She love you very much."
"Yes. I know. I loved her too." It was strange we were so close, as we had met only once.
"Last Christmas she spoke of you all the time. She wanted to see you again." She took a second helping of pizza and offered me some.
"I wish I could have seen her again. I carry her with me everywhere. Look." I pulled out my wallet and showed her Davida’s passport picture that I always carried with me. "The day after I heard of her death, I found this in my wallet, and when I saw that, I knew she was sending me a message that she was okay."
"Yes, okay! She's an angel, sweetie. I have seen her. She's an angel. The night when I heard you were coming I dreamed of her, and she was smiling. In other dreams she was sad, but that night she smiled." Sotiria was a dedicated member of the Greek Orthodox Church. After Davidas’ death, she turned to religion for solace.
"Tell me, did you find evidence to convict Stavros?"
"It is very difficult. We are trying, I have taken now to the highest court." She started on her third smoke. "I was very sick that day when the police called. I could not go to identify the body. I couldn't make it. When I finally went, I just...passed out. When I woke up, I could not even remember what happened. I didn't want to. After that, I just want to die. I go crazy." Her hand shook as she brought the cigarette to her mouth. "They beat bad, sweetie, and throw her like a dog."
"Who? Who's they? I thought it was just Stavros."
"But you know he was always with these bad people. Two black guys and some other ones. Like a gang." Her eyes teared up.
"They punch her on the body;” she gestured, “the police found bruises...then they kill her."
"How?" I whispered. I could not eat anymore.
"The police find 35 different kinds of drugs in her body. They injected into her with a mix of 35 hospital drugs. Can you imagine?" I could not.
"She had gone to work Saturday night. You know, she was working three nights as a waitress. At three in the morning, she called me to say she was taking a taxi home. So I went to bed...When I woke on Sunday, she was not there; so I call to all her friends that she work with. They said at three she had gone home. Then I call the police. They did not find her till Monday morning. Tossed like a dog into a park. Two five-year-old children find her."
"But how do you know it was Stavros?"
"A mother knows these things. He was always trying to find her. Twice when we were staying in our old apartment he came to take her, but, God's mercy, she was not there. He would pick the lock and come in without knocking. But I was smart. I moved her to my friend's place so he could not find her. Then she find this home and we move in. She love this home so much."
"And Stavros never found this apartment?"
"No. Never. But always he looking for her. She told me once about two years ago, 'Stavros wants to kill me. One day, he will kill me.' I guess she was right."
"And you told this to the police, and they haven’t arrested him?"
"I try. I try. There is so much...complications...But he must pay."
"Yes." I agreed. "He must."
A few nights later, I met Davida's oldest school friend and her sister. Their family greeted me with a shower of kisses and hugs. The father did not speak a word of English, but made sure my glass of wine remained full at all times. We got on with much noise, gesture and laughter. As I left their apartment for my outing with the girls, their tiny aunt enfolded me tightly in her arms, laying her head against my chest.
"We want to see you to be happy! If you are happy, to us it will be like Davida is happy; then we will be happy." This same charming little woman had stared in half-horror, half-wonder when she first walked into the room and saw me. The girls laughed. "You look so much like her, she's not sure whether you are her or not."
My phone rang and I fumbled through my bag till I found it. "Hello?" "Uh...yes, hello. This is Nikos, Sotiria's brother. "Uh...you want go somewhere? I come pick you, we go with my bike...maybe to the beach for coffee."
"Yes, why not!" The last time I had visited, the three of us had enjoyed going to the beach together. He hung up and I sat and waited. My sister and Nikos had been very close. He loved her like his own child, and she was his best friend and confidant. Maybe he could offer me a little more insight into the life of my sister.
Fifteen minutes later he pulled up on his huge red motorbike. It was odd the way most things had not changed in three years, except the absence of Davida. He waved and I went over. "Hello Julie! Hello!" He gave me a big hug, surprisingly gentle for his massive bulk. "Come, you okay on a bike?"
"Yes, yes, of course!" I jumped on the back, and we pulled out of the parking. The blast of cold wind stung my cheeks as we sped along the highway. The sun was setting huge and red against the horizon, like a post card. We parked at a pretty seaside cafe that I vaguely recognized and found a secluded spot with an undisturbed view of the ocean.
I remembered that Nikos was a professor of some kind and I asked him what he taught, trying to put him at ease. "Mathematics! I have written a book. Look see." He pulled from his pouch a red textbook and passed it to me. I leafed through its pages written in Greek with equations scattered throughout.
He took the book from me and wrote on the starting page, "To Joulie, with much love, Nikos" He handed it back to me and I thanked him.
"Sotiria tells me Davida used to write some diaries."
"Yes. She wrote many things. I am planning to write a book telling her story with these diaries. I have it here." He pointed to his head. "I will do it one day. But not yet. Not now. It is too how you say?"
"Soon?" I offered.
"I wish I could read them." The waitress came with our coffee. I spooned sugar in my cappuccino and stirred it absentmindedly.
"My English not so good, but I try to translate some things to you if you like."
"Very much. I want to know all about her. Was she happy after she got off drugs?"
"At times. At times she was happy, but most of the time very depressed."
"Really?" This contradicted what Sotiria had believed.
"She would confide many things to me. Like therapy. She was my therapist and I for her."
"Why? What was she depressed about?"
He poured coffee from the pot into his cup. "Well...for Davida... she live in two worlds. One was this material world around us, the other..." his voice trailed off as he tried to find the words in English, "the other, the spiritual. She could never adjust to this one. It was very difficult for her. She tell me, she could not feel. She feel dead."
"Because of drugs?"
"Maybe, yes. At times she was fine. She would be with friends, and go out. Other times, she just shut off her phone and not speak to anyone for a week, two weeks. She like to be alone. She don't like people. She could not hold any relationship. She tell me once she would like a man, and be with him maybe a week, and then, ah!" He wiped his hands. "She don't want to see them again. They bored her. She would not see them again. So, she prefer to be alone. “
"We are alike." I thought to myself. "If only I had been here. I understood. She would not have felt so alone."
"And she was beautiful. She tell me her beauty was like a curse. Men always follow her down the street, call to her, all the men fall in love with her. She don't want any of them. She want to disappear. She did not know how to live in this world. She was more in the other. So she was always sad."
We both grew silent, withdrawing into our individual thoughts. Maybe she was better off leaving this world. It had given her a lot of pain, and she was too gentle and good to suffer it.
"Sotiria thinks Stavros killed Davida. Do you think so?"
"Uuhh...yes, Sotiria likes to believe this, but I don't know. He would not kill her I think. She told me one day maybe a month before she die that she fight very hard not to take drugs, every day she must fight. And she say she is tired to try. One day she will take again, and that day she will die."
"She told you this?"
"Yes. She did not feel any will to live. She tired of life. I don't know what is truth, but maybe because she meet Stavros again one week before she die."
"She met him again?"
"Yes, he find her at her work and she talk to him. I don't know. Maybe he gave her drugs and she not strong enough to fight him...ah! Yassus Sotiria!"
I had been concentrating so much on what he was saying, I did not notice Sotiria approach. She kissed her brother, pulled up a chair and sat down between us. I told them about Davidito’s tragic death. Sotiria crossed herself and muttered, "God's mercy. I pray every day for these children; for their souls. Poor children! Poor, poor children. You know, I never lie to Davida. Always I tell her, her father is busy with his life, and we have ours. But if she want, when she turn eighteen, she can go to see him. But then, Jenny, this woman who live with your father, calls one day when Davida is fifteen. She tells her many things about her father, and so she writes to him and her father sends her a letter."
I cleared my throat. "I...I remember that letter.” Celeste and I were horrified when he showed us his letter. We told him that we thought it was insensitive to her; he emphasized that he had a new family now. We had asked him to write another one apologizing for abandoning her. We added a letter of our own and gifts, but a year later Dad told us that they never received the package. Sotria had written him saying that she had started taking drugs.
“After his first letter,” Sotiria continued, “she never hears anything again. So she becomes very depressed. This is when she begin to drink and take drugs. When you visit I say nothing to him about this. But now I understand, he did not come because he want to know her. He come for himself. Just to make peace with his own conscience. I think I am going to call now that she is gone, and tell him what I think. You think it will do any good? He will even listen?"
"Maybe. I think if he hears it from enough people, he may wake up to the fact that he has been a negligent father to many of his children."
"You know after you leave, she very angry with him. She say, 'He is no father. Not to me, not to Julie. I never want to see him again. What he want me to come to Uganda for? What I do there? Only to work for him like Julie. No, I don't want to go. I will only fight with him."
By this time night had fallen and a cold wind blew around us. We were the last people sitting outside, but our conversation made us oblivious to the chill. Nikos looked at his watch. "Come on, let's go get dinner."
Sotiria offered. "Tomorrow, we will visit Davida's grave. Nikos, you are coming?"
"No. I don't want to see her grave. I want to remember her as she was alive."
A grey morning saw us make our way through the cemetery towards Davida's grave. Row after endless row of crosses stretched into the distance.
"Is this the biggest cemetery in Athens?"
"No, no. This is small." Sotiria said.
"That's a lot of dead people." I thought to myself, surprised at my own detachment. Sotiria crossed herself as we walked, and I found myself wondering whether you cross yourself left to right, or right to left. It was a full five minutes before we reached the area where Davida's grave lay. Even from afar, it stood out from the rest.
"I did not like the idea of marble." Sotiria explained. Instead of marble, the entire plot had been turned into a luscious garden. Bright purple and orange gardenia and chrysanthemums bloomed amidst roses of every size and color. A huge red rose the size of three ordinary roses, leant against a tall ornate cross at the head of the grave with a statue of an angel on one side, and a dancer posed gracefully on the other. There was a heart with a picture of Davida dancing and a short epitaph inside written by her mother.
"What does it say?" I asked Sotiria, pointing to the heart.
"God sent me an angel in my life. Suddenly you left. My wish is to make you able to dance with the angels."
"Davi-doo-la!" Sotiria called her by her pet name. "Look who has come to see you!" She bent over Davida's picture, kissing it repeatedly. "How are you baby? Good morning my sweetie. See, I have brought your sister today!" She caressed the image of her daughter, then pulled a pack of wet wipes out of her bag and began to clean the dust off the picture where the rains had left muddy streaks.
"People were angry with me for putting this picture.” She said “They want something that show just her face. But I say no; I want this one. I don't care what people like. She loved dancing. This is how I want to remember. Put your rose wherever you like."
I was carrying a single pink rose bud, not yet bloomed, like Davida, I thought. It seemed silly now amongst all the flowers. Sotiria had taken me out onto the balcony of her apartment before we left and went over to a single rose bush. "I gave this to Davida as a present one Christmas. She loved roses very much. Now, every time I visit her grave, it gives me one rose. Here." She cut a delicate pink bud waiting to bloom amongst the leaves and handed it to me. "You can take to Davida."
Now by my sister’s grave, the rose seemed pointless. I was glad there were always live flowers blooming to commemorate my sister. Underneath the cross was a miniscule room and through its glass walls I could see all kinds of little trinkets, and small remembrances of her. Noticing it was dirty, I started to clean inside. Sotiria came back with water for the garden, and together we tidied the interior as she told me what each of its contents signified. Before closing the door, she retrieved a candle and some incense she kept inside. We lit the incense at the foot of the grave and she pushed the burning candle into the dirt. I sat down on a rock opposite, and watched as Sotiria sprayed the incense over the garden while chanting a prayer in Greek. Then she switched to English. . ."Our Father, which art in Heaven, hallowed be thy name... "
Maybe it was the incense, or the sleepy gray weather, but suddenly I felt very tired. I just wanted to lay down somewhere and sleep. I pictured my sister slumbering peacefully under the ground. I imagined curling up next to her and falling asleep with her body spooned around mine...when her warm body shrunk into a skeleton. I shook the image out of my head. Had I dozed? But I was still sitting on the rock, and Sotiria was still reciting the Lord's prayer. ..."for Thine is the kingdom, and the power and the glory forever, Amen."
"Amen." I repeated dutifully.
"God I pray for the soul of Davida, for the soul of..." she began to name all the people whose tombs surrounded her daughter's. I thought this was a kind gesture. Then she turned her prayers closer to home. "God I pray for Davida’s father. Shine light on his heart and open his eyes. Help him love his children. I pray for Celeste and Kristina. I pray for Davidito, poor boy. I pray for his soul and the soul of his mother that she can see the truth. I pray for Julie. Give her guidance, and show her the path she should take...and, forgive me..." Sotiria broke down and wept, her whole body shook in huge, heart-wrenching sobs. Such raw sorrow was too painful to watch. I turned my head away, even as I felt the tears welling up. The bitter kind of tears that I suppress because they hurt too much to shed, the kind that come from the heart, so that I imagine I am crying blood instead of water. I did not want to cry in front of her. Or in front of anybody. I did want to be alone. Alone with my sister. I waited, silent and still as the cross opposite me, until I felt like an extension of the stone I sat upon.
Sotiria eventually calmed herself; shakily she drew herself up from her knees, steadied herself against the cross and came back towards me. "I'm sorry sweetie. I give you too much today, I think."
"No, no, it's okay. You want to...go now?"
"No, we can stay as long you want."
"I...do you think I could have just a couple minutes alone to talk to Davida?"
"Yes, of course. Take as much time you like. I just go for a smoke, okay?" I watched her walk away, waiting till she was a good distance. When she was out of sight, I found myself still waiting. For what, I was not sure. Maybe for the words to come; I wanted so badly to say something, but what it was eluded me. The cemetery seemed unnaturally still, as if it was holding its breath...for me.
"Davida...I came to tell you something, and now that I'm here, I don't know what to say. I guess, I just had to see you again." And though I had fought it hard the whole visit, I finally cried. "I'm so sorry. I'm sorry I did not come to see you again. I'm sorry I left you and you felt so alone. I'm sorry your life was such a difficult struggle and you had such a rough go of it. But mostly I'm sorry I was not there to help you. I know it's too late now to say it, but I want you to know how much you meant to me. How much I loved you...love you still and always. I want you to know that I will live my life the best I can, for both of us. Think of me from sometimes, then maybe I won't feel so alone. Goodbye, sister." I kissed my hand, put it against her picture, and walked away without looking back.
At the apartment I made a half hearted attempt to sort through some of her belongings, but it felt pointless. I was flipping through her diary when the phone rang. It was Nikos asking if I wanted to go out for a drink with a couple friends of his. He showed up on his bike and we drove to a quaint little cafe. The manager greeted him like an old friend.
"We used to meet here all the time with Davida." Nikos explained as he eased himself into his chair. "We hold group therapy sessions. We talk, tell our problems, try to see how we can help the other. Mostly have a nice time."
"Sounds cosy." Davida's diary had put me in a pensive mood and the eighties music blaring through the room was annoying. I sipped my wine.
"You know, Julie, you come all this way, from half way around the world, and only for short time. I think you have right to know."
I kept quiet, waiting.
"Davida tell me maybe a month before she die, she say to me, 'Nikos, I try every day hard not to take. But if I take again, I will be...finished.' About a week before she die, I am not a hundred per cent sure, but pretty sure, she begin to take again."
"But Sotiria tells me the doctor said she was pumped with about 35 kinds of hospital drugs." "Yes, I explain. The day she die, the doctor doing the..."
"Autopsy?" I offered.
"Yes, autopsy, say they find three kind of drugs. Alcohol, the anti-depressant medication she take and heroin. When these get into the blood, the different chemical in them break down into their original state. So the list read many kinds of drug, but all stem from just the three. But Sotiria, doesn’t want to believe this."
"But the bruises. She said there were bruises on her body like they beat her."
"No, no. You know, she take drugs with needle. For so long. In time, she can't find her vein. She tell me, there no veins she can find anymore. So she poke everywhere and just inject any place. This causes purple bruises. They find nineteen grams of heroin in her. Ordinary user takes maybe ten. She experienced drug user, she knows how much to take."
I understood then, what he was saying. My sister had consciously killed herself. She had fallen back into the addiction she had fought hardest against, and rather than make her family to suffer through it all over again, she decided it was not worth fighting any longer, and ended it herself. I think she just did not see the point anymore. This is what she had told Nikos a month before. "If I start again, I will be finished."
Nikos continued. "She was tired of everything. She was not strong enough to fight it a second time. And she could not love anybody. She did not trust anybody to love her. That is why all the men try and nobody can get close. She expect them to leave her in the end. So anybody she start to feel something for, she push away and never see again."
I understood then. "It started with our father."
"Yes. She expect all men to be like her father. Even friends. She cannot accept love from anybody."
I sipped my wine. Were she and I so similar after all? Her demons had killed her, and I had conquered mine in my own way. What had made the difference?
"And you?" Nikos patted my head. "You are stronger than her, I think." He had an uncanny way of reading my thoughts. Then in a flash of understanding, an answer came to me.
"I was inoculated. In the old days of kings and nobles, death by poison was a common method of assassination, yes?"
He nodded. .
"So the kings used to take a small portion of poison in their meals, so that their bodies would become accustomed to it, so if anyone tried to poison them, they would only become sick, not die. It’s the same principle as immunization."
"So, I had small portions of poison my whole life, I had the disease many times, so that I became sick from it, yes, but eventually I grew stronger, immune. My sister never had it, so when it hit her once, she never recovered."
Nikos contemplated the analogy briefly. "Yes, I think you are right." Nikos was eating himself to death. Food was his path to self-destruction. He had loved Davida as his own daughter. He tried to help her, counsel her, encourage her to be strong. But she could always throw it back in his face. 'How can you lecture me on resisting drugs, when you can't resist food? I'll take drugs and die; you'll eat till you die. What's the difference?' Obviously her argument had an effect, Sotiria told me he was keeping to a diet with Davida. They made an unspoken pact. She wouldn't take drugs, he would diet. When she died, he started overeating again. I guess, like her, he did not see the point anymore.
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