That afternoon, the three of us had planned to swim, but the water was still too cold and we had ended up lying on the rocks, dozing off. When Thalia and I came home, we found Mamá in the kitchen, peeling carrots. Another letter sat unopened on the table.
“It’s from your stepfather,” Mamá said.
Thalia picked up the letter and went upstairs. It was a long time before she came down. She dropped the sheet of paper on the table, sat down, picked up a knife and a carrot.
“He wants me to come home.”
“I see,” Mamá said. I thought I heard the faintest flutter in her voice.
“Not home, exactly. He says he has contacted a private school in England. I could enroll in the fall. He’d pay for it, he said.”
“What about Aunt Madaline?” I asked.
“She’s gone. With Elias. They’ve eloped.”
“What about the film?”
Mamá and Thalia exchanged a glance and simultaneously tipped their gaze up toward me, and I saw what they knew all along.
One morning in 2002, more than thirty years later, around the time I am preparing to move from Athens to Kabul, I stumble upon Madaline’s obituary in the newspaper. Her last name is listed now as Kouris, but I recognize in the old woman’s face a familiar bright-eyed grin, and more than detritus of her youthful beauty. The small paragraph below says that she had briefly been an actress in her youth prior to founding her own theater company in the early 1980s. Her company had received critical praise for several productions, most notably for extended runs of Eugene O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey into Night in the mid-1990s, Chekhov’s The Seagull, and Dimitrios Mpogris’s Engagements. The obituary says she was well known among Athens’s artistic community for her charity work, her wit, her sense of style, her lavish parties, and her willingness to take chances on unheralded playwrights. The piece says she died after a lengthy battle with emphysema but makes no mention of a surviving spouse or children. I am further stunned to learn that she lived in Athens for more than two decades, at a house barely six blocks from my own place on Kolonaki.
I put down the paper. To my surprise, I feel a tinge of impatience with this dead woman I have not seen for over thirty years. A surge of resistance to this story of how she had turned out. I had always pictured her living a tumultuous, wayward life, hard years of bad luck—fits and starts, collapse, regret—and ill-advised, desperate love affairs. I had always imagined that she’d self-destructed, likely drank herself to the kind of early death that people always call tragic. Part of me had even credited her with the possibility that she had known this, that she had brought Thalia to Tinos to spare her, rescue her from the disasters Madaline knew she was helpless from visiting upon her daughter. But now I picture Madaline the way Mamá always must have: Madaline, the cartographer, sitting down, calmly drawing the map of her future and neatly excluding her burdensome daughter from its borders. And she’d succeeded spectacularly, at least according to this obituary and its clipped account of a mannered life, a life rich with achievement, grace, respect.
I find I cannot accept it. The success, the getting away with it. It is preposterous. Where was the toll, the exacting comeuppance?
And yet, as I fold the newspaper, a nagging doubt begins to set in. A faint intimation that I have judged Madaline harshly, that we weren’t even that different, she and I. Hadn’t we both yearned for escape, reinvention, new identities? Hadn’t we each, in the end, unmoored ourselves by cutting loose the anchors that weighed us down? I scoff at this, tell myself we are nothing alike, even as I sense that the anger I feel toward her may really be a mask for my envy over her succeeding at it all better than I had.
I toss the newspaper. If Thalia is going to find out, it won’t be from me.
Mamá pushed the carrot shavings off the table with a knife and collected them in a bowl. She loathed it when people wasted food. She would make a jar of marmalade with the shavings.
“Well, you have a big decision to make, Thalia,” she said.
Thalia surprised me by turning to me and saying, “What would you do, Markos?”
“Oh, I know what he would do,” Mamá said quickly.
“I would go,” I said, answering Thalia, looking at Mamá, taking satisfaction in playing the insurrectionist that Mamá thought I was. Of course I meant it too. I couldn’t believe Thalia would even hesitate. I would have leapt at the chance. A private education. In London.
“You should think about it,” Mamá said.
“I already have,” Thalia said hesitantly. Then, even more hesitant, as she raised her eyes to meet Mamá’s, “But I don’t want to assume.”
Mamá put down the knife. I heard a faint expulsion of breath. Had she been holding it? If so, her stoic face betrayed no sign of relief. “The answer is yes. Of course it’s yes.”
Thalia reached across the table and touched Mamá’s wrist. “Thank you, Aunt Odie.”
“I’ll only say this once,” I said. “I think this is a mistake. You’re both making a mistake.”
They turned to look at me.
“Do you want me to go, Markos?” Thalia said.
“Yes,” I said. “I’d miss you, a lot, and you know that. But you can’t pass up a private school education. You’d go to university afterward. You could become a researcher, a scientist, a professor, an inventor. Isn’t that what you want? You’re the smartest person I know. You could be anything you want.”
I broke off.
“No, Markos,” Thalia said heavily. “No I couldn’t.”
She said this with a thudding finality that sealed off all channels of rebuttal.
Many years later, when I began training as a plastic surgeon, I understood something that I had not that day in the kitchen arguing for Thalia to leave Tinos for the boarding school. I learned that the world didn’t see the inside of you, that it didn’t care a whit about the hopes and dreams, and sorrows, that lay masked by skin and bone. It was as simple, as absurd, and as cruel as that. My patients knew this. They saw that much of what they were, would be, or could be hinged on the symmetry of their bone structure, the space between their eyes, their chin length, the tip projection of their nose, whether they had an ideal nasofrontal angle or not.
Beauty is an enormous, unmerited gift given randomly, stupidly.
And so I chose my specialty to even out the odds for people like Thalia, to rectify, with each slice of my scalpel, an arbitrary injustice, to make a small stand against a world order I found disgraceful, one in which a dog bite could rob a little girl of her future, make her an outcast, an object of scorn.
At least this is what I tell myself. I suppose there were other reasons I chose plastic surgery. Money, for instance, prestige, social standing. To say I chose it solely because of Thalia is too simple—lovely as the idea may be—a bit too orderly and balanced. If I’ve learned anything in Kabul, it is that human behavior is messy and unpredictable and unconcerned with convenient symmetries. But I find comfort in it, in the idea of a pattern, of a narrative of my life taking shape, like a photograph in a darkroom, a story that slowly emerges and affirms the good I have always wanted to see in myself. It sustains me, this story.
I spent half of my practice in Athens, erasing wrinkles, lifting eyebrows, stretching jowls, reshaping misbegotten noses. I spent the other half doing what I really wanted to, which was to fly around the world—to Central America, to sub-Saharan Africa, to South Asia, and to the Far East—and work on children, repairing cleft lips and palates, removing facial tumors, repairing injuries to their faces. The work in Athens was not nearly as gratifying, but the pay was good, and it afforded me the luxury of taking weeks and months off at a time for my volunteer work.
Then, early in 2002, I took a phone call in my office from a woman I knew. Her name was Amra Ademovic. She was a nurse from Bosnia. She and I had met at a conference in London a few years back and had had a pleasant, weekend-long thing that we’d mutually kept inconsequential, though we had remained in touch and seen each other socially on occasion. She said she was working for a nonprofit in Kabul now and that they were searching for a plastic surgeon to work on children—cleft lips, facial injuries inflicted by shrapnel and bullets, that sort of thing. I agreed on the spot. I intended to stay for three months. I went late in the spring of 2002. I never came back.
Thalia picks me up from the ferry port. She has on a green wool scarf and a thick dull-rose-colored coat over a cardigan sweater and jeans. She wears her hair long these days, loose over the shoulders and parted in the center. Her hair is white, and it is this feature—not the mutilated lower face—that jars me and takes me aback when I see her. Not that it surprises me; Thalia started going gray in her mid-thirties and had cotton-white hair by the end of the following decade. I know I have changed too, the stubbornly growing paunch, the just-as-determined retreat of the hairline, but the decline of one’s own body is incremental, as nearly imperceptible as it is insidious. Seeing Thalia white-haired presents jolting evidence of her steady, inevitable march toward old age—and, by association, my own.
“You’re going to be cold,” she says, tightening the scarf around her neck. It’s January, late morning, the sky overcast and gray. A cool breeze makes the shriveled-up leaves clatter in the trees.
“You want cold, come to Kabul,” I say. I pick up my suitcase.
“Suit yourself, Doctor. Bus or walk? Your choice.”
“Let’s walk,” I say.
We head north. We pass through Tinos town. The sailboats and yachts moored in the inner harbor. The kiosks selling postcards and T-shirts. People sipping coffee at little round tables outside cafés, reading newspapers, playing chess. Waiters setting out silverware for lunch. Another hour or two and the smell of cooking fish will waft from kitchens.
Thalia launches energetically into a story about a new set of whitewashed bungalows that developers are building south of Tinos town, with views of Mykonos and the Aegean. Primarily, they will be filled by either tourists or the wealthy summer residents who have been coming to Tinos since the 1990s. She says the bungalows will have an outdoor pool and a fitness center.
She has been e-mailing me for years, chronicling for me these changes that are reshaping Tinos. The beachside hotels with the satellite dishes and dial-up access, the nightclubs and bars and taverns, the restaurants and shops that cater to tourists, the cabs, the buses, the crowds, the foreign women who lie topless at the beaches. The farmers ride pickup trucks now instead of donkeys—at least the farmers who stayed. Most of them left long ago, though some are coming back now to live out their retirement on the island.
“Odie is none too pleased,” Thalia says, meaning with the transformation. She has written me about this too—the older islanders’ suspicion of the newcomers and the changes they are importing.
“You don’t seem to mind the change,” I say.
“No point in griping about the inevitable,” she says. Then adds, “Odie says, ‘Well, it figures you’d say that, Thalia. You weren’t born here.’” She lets out a loud, hearty laugh. “You’d think after forty-four years on Tinos I would have earned the right. But there you have it.”
Thalia has changed too. Even with the winter coat on, I can tell she has thickened in the hips, become plumper—not soft plump, sturdy plump. There is a cordial defiance to her now, a slyly teasing way she has of commenting on things I do that I suspect she finds slightly foolish. The brightness in her eyes, this new hearty laugh, the perpetual flush of the cheeks—the overall impression is, a farmer’s wife. A salt-of-the-earth kind of woman whose robust friendliness hints at a bracing authority and hardness you might be unwise to question.
“How is business?” I ask. “Are you still working?”