We left Athens in the evening, on an overnight ferry to Mykonos. The ship rumbled beneath us at a snail’s pace, shuddering with such violence we imagined something must be wrong with the engine. The cabin smelled of diesel so we stayed on deck, letting the warm wind wash over us and watching the sunset bleed out over the Aegean Sea. After a while, M. returned to our stateroom, complaining of a stomachache, while I remained on deck to watch the stars. As I lay there, staring up into the night sky, I had the sensation of looking down upon a buzzing, luminous metropolis—full of traffic jams, racing freeways, city blocks and skyscrapers with every window lit. The stars wheeled, darted, scintillated above me, each distinct, detonating over and over again in perfect silence.
I felt far from everything, free to re-make myself.
In our mid-twenties, we had arrived in Greece so I could work for Rococo (the Greek equivalent of Armani), who had booked me to model their suits and do their ad campaign. And, since neither of us had ever been to Greece, we decided to stay.
M. was still awake when I returned to our stateroom—moaning and tossing in bed. She looked possessed, glassy-eyed, her long blonde hair matted and soaked with sweat.
“My God,” I said.
“Maybe it was the lamb,” she whispered between gasps—having eaten lamb that evening in the ship’s mess. Then, suddenly enraged, she cried out: “Why won’t this fucking boat stop shaking!”
She continued to moan and hold herself for another hour, until finally she fell asleep.
I figured whatever it was would pass by morning. But the next day, as we drifted into Mykonos harbor, she was pasty and green, sweating profusely, and still in pain. I helped her to shore, bags slung over my shoulder, and chose a simple pension within walking distance of the harbor. It was clean and white with a porch overlooking the sea. I left her in bed while I hurried to the pharmacy to find something for the pain.
It was an aesthetic marvel, the island: the bleached buildings with blue shutters, the stark volcanic rock, the views of fishing boats and cerulean water. But as I searched for a pharmacy, a doctor’s office, I was indifferent to it all—only thinking of M.
I passed the street market, where tourists bartered for produce, young gay men fingered jewelry and scarves, and a table of old Greek men looked on with amusement, throwing back shots of ouzo. It was only ten, but already the men were drinking, and the sun splashed violently against the whitewashed walls.
By the time I returned to the room with medicine, she looked worse. She lay writhing in bed, cramping as if in labor. “I’ll get a doctor,” I said.
“No!” she cried. “Don’t leave!” She was naked except for a T-shirt, cupping her pubic bone, raging, hair wild.
From between her legs, a pinkish fluid spread across the sheets. It struck me then, with staggering force: she was having a miscarriage—the miscarriage of a child neither of us knew she was carrying. A moment later, she arched her back and groaned, and the fetus appeared. I could not connect what I was seeing—the delicate, membranous skull, eyes, fingers—to my ordinary world. How could this tiny dead child exist in the same reality as, say, the camera on the bedside table, or the book (whose bold letters signified nothing)?
M. propped herself up on her elbows and looked between her legs. She began keening softly, twisting her head from side to side. Then the wail grew in pitch until it reached a full-throated cry. I had never understood the word hysterical till now. “My baby!” she shrieked.
Was it a boy, girl? I didn’t check, didn’t want to know. I scooped it up with a wad of toilet paper and threw it in the trashcan, and then covered it with more paper—wanting to erase, deny, its very existence.
“No,” I lied, “no, it was only blood.”
Still wailing, she looked at me with horrified eyes.
I felt embarrassed. By what, our cluelessness? That someone might hear? I felt as if we had done something terribly wrong.
I grabbed her by the shoulders. “Stop it,” I said. But she kept screaming—a pure exhalation of grief, her voice swooping up and down.
I slapped her face (but without force). And she fell silent, aghast, mouth ajar. “You’re all right,” I said, trying to get her to look at me. I hugged her; she felt limp in my arms and shuddered. Though her pain was gone, she had withdrawn to some far corner of her consciousness and stared without focus.
The next day, we took the first ship back to Athens, and then a taxi directly to the hospital.
M. waited for hours, lying on a gurney in the hallway, with nothing but a hospital gown to cover her—her long tan legs exposed. The bleach rising off the floors stung my eyes and the pale green walls echoed with anxious voices. The doctor, when he finally arrived, could only speak a handful of English words—“yes,” “okay,” “no problem”—which he repeated at random, and then abruptly walked away.
Some time later, an orderly appeared and wheeled her down the hall. “Don’t worry,” I said, “everything will be okay,” which came out sounding asinine. I followed, holding her hand, until we reached a set of doors beyond which I wasn’t allowed to go.
While the procedure took place, I fled the hospital to clear my mind, and found a quiet side street with thick vegetation growing on either side and forming a canopy overhead. It was late-afternoon and hot—a dry desert heat that instantly dried the sweat from my skin. As I walked along the shaded street, I was plagued with conflicted feelings of regret and relief. I wasn’t ready to raise a child or marry or even stay in one place. And I didn’t see M. as a mother or wife (more a consumed artist). But I couldn’t help but imagine what the child might have been like, the trajectory of his life. I imagined a quiet, towheaded boy, prone to bouts of giggling, with large, clever eyes. And, for a moment, I imagined the love between us—as if he truly existed in the world.
Wherever his soul was headed, I wished it well.
When she returned from the operation, she looked shell-shocked and defeated. And with an armful of flowers and a stack of German fashion magazines, I declared my love. But something had changed between us. I felt it immediately. As she lay in bed in the recovery room and the windows darkened, she spoke of spending more time in Germany with her family, of going back to school to study photography, of settling down somewhere… in Berlin perhaps. And I understood that our journey together was coming to a close.
As we left the hospital together that evening, she leaned heavily against me and, with slow steps, we advanced toward the taxi. It was quiet out and still warm and the tops of cypresses moved in the breeze. At once, the urge to belong flared up inside me, though I foresaw only years of wandering ahead. I looked up into the night sky, hoping to find stars, but the pollution and city lights prevented me from seeing anything.
Jay Kauffmann holds an MFA from Vermont College and has taught at Randolph College, Vermont College, and Göteborgs Stadsbibliotek. Winner of the Andrew Grossbardt Memorial Prize and nominee for a Pushcart Prize, he has work out or forthcoming in The Writer’s Chronicle, Lumina, upstreet, Storyglossia, CutBank, Gulf Stream, Mid-American Review, and elsewhere. “Mykonos (1988)” is excerpted from Mannequin, a memoir about his years as an international model.
Q: What surprised you most during the process of composing and revising this piece?
A: I was surprised by how difficult it was to be true to the experience and still avoid being sensational. This is a problem common with material that is so highly charged and personal. I often tell my students, when approaching such material, to find some objectivity—take a more dispassionate stance. But, as I went through successive drafts, I found this, of course, much easier to say than do.
Q: What’s the best writing advice you’ve received? Did you follow it? Why, or why not?
A: “Let the sound guide you…” And I don’t even remember who said it, or if I read it somewhere, but I have since heard writers as diverse as Richard Ford, Virginia Woolf, and Don DeLillo say the same thing. And, yes, I follow it absolutely. There’s a music, a rhythm, distinctly mine, in my head, which supersedes logic, reason, literary rules. And it’s the only authority I trust. So, no matter how right a sentence may seem, if the sound is off, the sentence is—in the Hemingway sense—untrue.
Q: What three to five authors and/or books have inspired your journey as a writer?
A: James Salter, Paul Bowles, Leonard Michaels, Frank Conroy, and Don DeLillo.
Q: Describe your writing space for us. Are you someone who finds the muse in a public space such as a café, or in a cave of one’s own?
A: I write most first drafts in bed, alone, first thing in the morning, before my rational mind has had a chance to kick in. Editing and revising I can do pretty much anywhere—airports, cafés… So, I suppose you could say the muse is in my bed.