On the boats and on the planes
They’re coming to America
Never looking back again,
They’re coming to America
Neil Diamond – Coming to America
Spring came late to Toronto in 1931 and despite the toll the grass took on his brand-new black suit, the nicest he had ever owned, 31-year-old Gianni was on his knees. His anguished tears mixed with the rain dropping on the smooth, slippery gravestone that had been laid just that morning. How would he care for his 3-year-old daughter and 2-week-old son without Naomi? His love. His life. His very essence. He tried to gather his emotions, but his mind went to the day 9 years ago, when they had met in a café on a beautiful sunny day in late August, and to the adventure that preceded it.
Gianni Kiriakopoulos looked more confident than his 20 years deserved as he haggled with one of Thouria’s most respected and well-off businessmen. Being a town of only some 2500 people, it was no surprise that the families of the two were well known to one another, regularly celebrating important events like christenings, weddings and funerals together. Blocking the walkway in front of the man’s house, which displayed one of the most spectacular views of the vast olive-covered river valley, was an overly large hand cart. It belonged to Gianni’s father and in it were four chairs, part of a set, and a broken-down table. “200 for the table and chairs. Don’t bother with the sofa. This is for my son’s new apartment. Don’t want him sitting around doing nothing!”
Gianni, the wind now out of his sails, begged, “I need at least 250 for me and Gus to get tickets on the ship.”
“To America. To New York.”
“Is that so? You and which Gus exactly are going to New York?”
Gianni wondered why all the questions, but he wanted the money. “Gus Elias. You know. Kostas. We’ve been best friends since we were agoraki in school.”
The man smiled like the Cheshire cat and asked, “Gus Elias, the priest’s son?”
“Ya”, Gianni clarified, “We’re moving to America.”
“I get it. If I had that sonofabitch priest for a father, I’d want to escape too. You can have the 250. I will short the collection plate to get the extra 50 back.”
Gianni, an accomplished musician and sought-after bouzouki player in the region, was humming inside as he unloaded the table and chairs into the man’s garage. The smooth, worn tabletop reminded him of countless holidays with his family and he wondered how long it would be until he saw them again. Gus’ father, the priest, happened to pass by as Gianni was unloading. The businessman waved, bowed, and tipped his hat to the priest as Gianni screened himself from view lest his plans be uncovered.
Once the priest was mesmerizing a handful of his flock and out of sight, the businessman held out the 250 Drachma. Gianni palmed it, the bills weathered and slightly sticky. Gianni headed off with his hand cart as the man hollered, “Where did you get the furniture?”
Pretending not to hear, Gianni continued toward his parents’ house. He needed to return the cart while they were still in the big city of Kalamata on their monthly supply run for the farm.
Gianni’s knees were soaked, a mixture of grass, rain and the displaced soil that had held the casket just minutes before. He caught himself smiling at the memories and halted. He had no reason to smile, the pull of the muscles an autonomic reaction as he thought back to how simple and happy life had been a decade ago.
The smell of the early morning sea dominated the air of Patras, the largest city and primary port in the Peloponnese. The brisk beginning to the day bespoke of a typical semi-humid May day in the southwestern most region of modern Greece.
Gus shouted to be heard above the din, the throng of excited, hopeful immigrants chattering about their plans for a new life. Like Gianni and Gus, they longed for a fresh start away from wars, corruption, and the boring existence of a small-town farmer. Gus, forever the keener, pointed out the ticket line, “We better hurry before they sell out of 3rd class tickets.”
Gianni smiled and nodded, “I’ll follow you.” He knew that Gus worshiped him and in return he loved Gus as if they were filos.
Gus thought, ‘Look at that ship. Not the most well-maintained, or well appointed, but, America, here we come!’ He thought about how they would have never made it this far or been able to make passage to New York without the moxie of his partner, two years his senior but many years the wiser. “We’d never be here without you.” He told Gianni, smiling. “You’ll have some great stories to tell when you’re older, especially about how we paid for this trip.”
“Will my grandchildren believe I sold my parents’ furniture to get the money? I’m not sure I believe it.”
“It wasn’t all their furniture. Just a table and chairs. And almost the sofa. Will you miss them?”
“The table and chairs?” Gianni joked.
Gus laughed. “No, your parents!”
“Of course,” Gianni said confidently, “But once we are set up in America, I’m going to send my parents and Sophia the money to join us. Do you think they will forgive me then?” he winked.
Gus scoffed, “If my mom was still here, I might do that, but pappy can rot in Greece or hell, as far as I care.”
Noting Gus’ departure from his normal, happy-go-lucky self, Gianni suggested, “I think I better do the talking at the window. You stay right here, take a look around, and get the lay of the land,” He added with a sparkle, “And look out for cute women going to New York.”
Gianni paid for their tickets. Once he had them, he cupped his hands and shouted at Gus, “Over here. That’s our ramp.” Gus rejoined him immediately and handed him a silky, cream coloured ticket, the paper adorned with writing they scarcely understood, thanks to a few English classes in Kalamata which they had taken on the sly in preparation for their journey. Passage for two to New York City on the SS Artemis!
While they boarded Gus asked, “Do you know if our room has a window?”
“I hope not,” kidded Gianni, “since I’m pretty sure this cabin is actually below the water level.”
“Really? I hope this ship doesn’t leak.”
Gianni laughed. “All boats leak. What matters…is that the pumps work!”
They laughed. Gus noticed a pair of young women giving Gianni the once over. Gianni was one of the most popular boys in Thouria. He possessed a sinewy physique, the product of years of hard physical labour. His deep blue eyes, not a common colour in Greece, had a way of making you feel like you were the only one in the room. His gleaming smile, with teeth perfectly straight and white, caused many women to blush when it was aimed in their direction. Gus noticed the female attention that Gianni attracted wherever he went, but Gianni never seemed to act on it.” He figured at some point he would find the right girl and marry for love just like his mom and dad. “They’re checking you out mi filos,” kidded Gus. Gianni, humble by nature, ignored the comment and headed toward their cabin. It did not have a window.
“Papa! Papa!” shouted the little girl from inside the black car parked half-on, half-off the curvy paved driveway. “Are you coming? It’s RAINING!”
Gianni was jolted out of his comfortable, momentary daze. He had to get back to his family. “Sure, just give me a minute”, he replied. His mind was a mess. He felt like a passenger in his own thoughts, reeling with grief and fear. He touched the gravestone instinctively to help him get to his feet. It was cold and wet now, sucking the heat from his hand. The sensation conjured up memories of his exploits on the high seas with Gus in a simpler, more hopeful time.
Ever since he had bet on himself to win the town chess championship while in fifth grade, the last year he attended any school, Gianni had developed a penchant for gambling. It was no good fortune when he and Gus passed a dice game as they circled the sun-starved lower decks for what seemed the hundredth time. The scent, a combination of sweat, bilge and traditional food being cooked on makeshift stoves was a unique one for them both. It was surprisingly not as nasty as one might imagine.
“You boys feeling lucky?” One of the gambling patrons rolled the dice in his hands, reminding Gus of Oliver Twist’s Fagin – dirty and calculating.
Gus hurried by, “No thanks. We don’t gamble.”
Gianni moved toward Fagin and grinned, “Your dice are probably rigged anyway.”
“Don’t even talk to these guys,” Gus pleaded with him quietly.
Gianni contemplated jumping in. The omnipresent mixture of Italian, Greek and Turkish music moved between consonance and dissonance as it matched, then fought, the drone of the ships engines. At the current rate of speed Gianni noted it sounded like an A flat, two below middle C. He figured it was probably not a smart idea to engage with ‘Fagin’ when a second gambler, who definitely seemed like a player, jumped in, “You know, I just saw another kid like you walk away with 20 dollars in his pocket. Not Drachma. DOLLARS!” He fanned out a series of bills in front of them.
Gianni’s heart raced. He had sudden dreams of making a few dollars at the expense of these two. It could mean the difference between a room in a dormitory and their own apartment. Despite Gus’ strenuous objections, he gave in to temptation and crowed to the second man, “OK, let me see those dice.” Gus sighed.
“No Craps. No Craps,” thought Gianni as he prepared to roll the dice for the first time.
Gus watched in anguish as the Player slowly worked Gianni, careful to let him win every few games, lest he realize that he was just the victim or tire of losing. After several attempts to get Gianni to quit, Gus’ fear and annoyance spurred him to insist, “Let’s go Gianni. We only have a little bit of money left. Let’s not give it to these guys.” He tugged Gianni’s short sleeved shirt. Gianni ignored him, desperate to win back the money for their arrival to America. He rolled the dice and they came up craps 3 times in a row.
“Now what will we do? We have no money for when we get to America,” complained Gus,
A dejected Gianni sat there for a minute. His hands went clammy, his expression fearful.
Unconvincingly, he muttered, “I will think of something.”
As the pair returned to their tiny, dank cabin, Gianni reeled and then his heart fell through the soles of his well-worn, brown leather shoes. The spot his Bouzouki had been a moment ago now sat vacant. He felt cold. There was a silence that had not been there moments before. His mind spun and he tasted the acidic, burning flavour of bile as the reality of what happened became clearer. Why would someone do this to him? Gianni was trying to process what had happened when Gus offered to find someone to help.
“Who I can talk to about a crime?” asked Gus.
“In 3rd class? Isn’t everything that goes on down here a crime?” joked the approaching steward as he tried to rush by Gus.
He shrewdly placed himself between the steward and his cart. Ignoring the poor joke, Gus blurted, “My friend’s bouzouki is now stolen.”
“Is musical instrument. Like lute, or mandolin. But Greek!” Gus shared with obvious pride.
The steward looked no smarter for the explanation. “What do you want me to do about it?” He asked in a tone that suggested he couldn’t have cared less.
“Who we can talk to?”
“About stolen bouzouki,” groused Gus.
“I guess you can talk to anyone you like mate, but no one will care.”
“Or do anything?” asked Gus.
“Or do anything,” assured the steward.
Gus tried to console Gianni, “Don’t worry mi filos, we can get you a new one in New York.”
Gianni lamented, “My dad taught me to play on that bouzouki. It was the only thing I brought along that actually mattered to me.” He was crestfallen and wondered how he could be so unlucky when he was supposed to be on top of the world right now. He convinced himself that he was being punished for selling his parents’ table and chairs without permission. This was retribution.
A few days later, Gus came barreling into the room, thinking he might have the boost that his companion needed. He roused Gianni and beamed, “Some geros are playing chess for money. Back of the ship. Let’s go!”
Gianni, still depressed about how his luck had turned since they’d boarded the ship, allowed Gus to direct him as he had little desire to put up any fight. Near the stern, there were five chess tables lined up, each one containing a pair of ancient migrants. “Wonder if they’re any good?” wondered Gus. “Let’s just watch a while. I bet you can beat these guys.”
Gianni snorted at the suggestion, “Grade 5 was a long time ago.”
“Yeah, but how many people can say they beat the entire town at chess when they were only 10 years old?”
“Right. But Grade 5 was a long time ago,” Gianni repeated.
Gianni carefully studied the games and moves being made by the players before chiming in, “The only one I’m not sure I can beat is mustachio over there. The one with the cigar. The rest of these guys are pikers.”
“Ok, let me see if I can get you in a game.”
Figuring mustachio was also Greek, Gus deliberately sidled up to him and inquired, “Who’s in charge of all this?”
Without looking at Gus, mustachio answered, “No one. You want a game?”
“Not me. My friend here.”
Mustachio gestured to one of his outfit, another Greek, and shouted, “Hey Nico. You up for a game”.
Nico looked over at Gianni, unimpressed, and asked, “With you?”
“Depends on the stakes,” Gianni truthfully replied, but he knew he wanted in now.
Nico suggested, “10 Drachma a game?” Seeing Gianni nod in agreement Nico said, “Pick a hand.”
Gianni pondered and chose Nico’s left hand. Nico turned it over, “You’re white. You go first.”
Gianni made short order of every player except one and was now deep in thought, mid-game, with mustachio – his final quarry. Gianni decided that it was no accident that the old man’s cigar smoke irritated his sinuses, impeding his ability to concentrate.
“Don’t hover!” he yelled at Gus, exasperated.
“Sorry. I just can’t believe you you’re kicking this guy’s ass.”
“Shhh. I’m trying to think.”
“Kala. Kala. Ok one more game and we’ve made back all the money we lost. You’re still my hero! I mean, again.”
Gianni took a deep breath and gloated, “Check.”
Gianni didn’t remember the drive home from the cemetery. His forehead rested on the steering wheel as he sat in the laneway behind his restaurant. He looked up and saw a garrison of family and friends through the living room window, filling the upstairs apartment he had shared with Naomi. Perfectly framed in the other window, sitting on the counter beside the refrigerator was his kori, 3-year-old Helen. He didn’t know where the baby was, but Gianni knew he would be ok. His sister Sophia would have seen to little James. He wasn’t ready to go in.
“There it is. There it is,” exclaimed Gus. “Can you see it?”
“I never thought we’d see it like this…”
“Up close it’s so amazing. It’s a lot bigger than I expected. How big do you think it is,” he asked, expecting no answer. “Looks like our ship is heading for the island right beside it.”
Gianni, always the problem solver suggested, “Let’s get to the deck so we can be first off the ship. I think we can get off early. They aren’t guarding the entrance to First Class. We can just walk off. Just don’t look at anyone.”
Gus was definitely in, “Ok, show me.”
They disembarked. The New York sun warmed them as they admired the skyline, a backdrop for the Statue that symbolized a new beginning and a brand-new life for them. The sea smelled the same as it did in Patras. It’s funny how the sea smells the same, regardless of where you’re from.
“Gianni you’re amazing. I can’t believe we were almost the first ones off.”
“Or that I won all our money back playing chess?” bragged Gianni.
“Over there,” pointed Gus. “There’s the line for immigration.” A few seconds later, he asked, “Do you think the people in America are just as amazing as we have heard?”
Gianni treated the question as rhetorical and maintained his silence. They snaked their way through the queue, first on the terrace, and finally inside the majestic immigration centre.
Their turn finally came, and they found themselves opposite a burly, unsmiling customs official who was no taller than Gus or Gianni, but almost twice their weight. Gianni figured he was roughly 40 and snickered as he considered the contradiction before them. This man was supposed to be free, yet he worked inside a cage all day. Clamped to the bars on the left side of his coop was a sign ordering entrants to stand behind a red line until called. Gianni steeled himself. This was going to be the first test of his very rudimentary English.
The official nodded his head at Gianni. “What’s your name?”
“I Gianni Kiriakopoulos.”
The official did a cursory up and down of the paper in front of him. “Don’t think you’re on the manifest.” He moved his gaze to Gus and interrogated, “What about you?”
“Kostas. Elias,” boasted Gus.
“Nope. Don’t see you either. You stowaways?” He chortled, amused at his attempt at humour. What he knew but they didn’t was that this kind of thing happened all the time, especially with steerage and 3rd class passengers.
“No! We PAY for tickets,” protested Gianni, not getting the joke.
“Doesn’t matter. I can enter you.” The customs official wasn’t being kind. It was just less work to simply let them in and record the entry. Pointing at Gus, “You. Name again,” he ordered.
“Ok. So K O S T A S E L I A S ?” He presented Gus the card he’d written out with his first and last name. With experience you could get pretty good at guessing how these strange names were spelled.
“Yes sir. That’s my name.”
“Here you go. Head over that way for medical inspection,” he barked. Shifting his gaze to Gianni, “You?”
Gianni sprung to attention and stepped back up to the counter, replacing Gus.
“I Gianni Kiriakopoulos.”
“Johnny. J O H N N Y.”
Sheepishly, Gianni offered, “No please. GiAnni!”
“Ok so G I O N N Y,” he grumbled, a scowl conveying his growing impatience.
Gianni gestured for a piece of paper so he could write his name.
The official obliged and then considered the piece of paper before him. “Okay I see. G I A N N I.”
The official paused, “Last name. Too long. I’ll do you a favour. Here you go.” He handed Gianni his card for medical inspection.
“Sir. Not my name.”
Gus came back to see why his friend’s processing was taking so much longer than most. “You ok filos?”
“They don’t like my name. This guy just changed my name on this card.”
Gus was bewildered. “What do you mean?” He grabbed the card from Gianni. “What!?!? P O U L O S? That’s not your name?”
Turning to the customs official, Gus inquired, “Sir, why you write part of name only down?
The man in the cage snapped, glaring at Gus, “I’m doing him a favour. Next!”
Gus and Gianni moved to the right, joining the rest of the cattle, who were divided into steers and cows, slinking their way through the long line to examination area, the final step to a life in America. “Finally,” Gus grumbled, “They can’t do that to you. They can’t do that! Let’s go talk to someone in charge.”
“No. I don’t want to get in trouble,” Gianni said, disappointing Gus for the second time in a few days. He hauled his friend to the doorway and stepped out into the bustling environment that was Ellis Island. Gianni looked around, admiring again the massive city just over the water. The sprawling expanse spoke of new people, new homes, and new opportunities.
He couldn’t wait.
Gianni opened the car door priming himself to go inside and endure the obligatory condolences. He looked at the lower level of the building he had purchased 3 years before and was rewarded with a burst of pride in what he’d accomplished so far. Over the door was a sign, dimly lit by the Toronto night that said, “Deliveries: Patmos Restaurant”. He smiled as he thought about the roots of that name, the memory taking over.
Gianni burst into the fourth story, 1-bedroom apartment that he was sharing with Gus in Astoria, where most Greek immigrants could be found in June of 1920. The apartment had its own bathroom, running water, and electricity – three things that his homestead in Thouria had lacked. It was a mere 10 days after they had cleared their medical exam, and Gianni for one was feeling very grateful that his luck had turned. “Hey,” he exclaimed. “Remember that restaurant called Patmos we saw the other day? I went in and met the owner, Georgios. I guessed by the name and I was right. He’s from Kalamata. I told him we were from Thouria and needed a job.”
“In a restaurant?”
Gianni was a bit perplexed, knowing how much they needed money. “Ya, working in the kitchen to start! Helping cook and clean dishes…”
“I want to work in construction.”
“I want to be a brain surgeon. Beggars can’t be choosers.”
“I’m better than that. I want to look for my own job.”
Gianni insisted, “We can’t afford to wait for that to happen. We have to make a living now. Let’s take these jobs until we find a better one.”
“Ok but only until I find a better one,” Gus reaffirmed. “I’m not working in any restaurant for the rest of my life.”
“Why? What’s wrong with that? I want my own restaurant one day. One of the best places in Astoria!”
“That’s fine”, Gus rejected, “As long as you don’t mind working 7 days a week from morning until night.”
Gus and Gianni soon settled into the Patmos, becoming an integral part of the operation within just a few months. While Gianni felt fortunate to be working in the kitchen of the Patmos, Gus began to resent his position, feeling trapped in what he considered a boring job that was beneath him.
Georgios was proud of the Patmos. It was typical of restaurants of that era – cheap art depicting nondescript coastal Mediterranean villages decorated red wallpaper that surrounded pocket-sized square tables, each of which was covered with a red tablecloth and accompanied by red upholstered seats. Red and black carpet, most of which was in decent shape, stood in stark contrast to the waitresses’ crisp, white uniforms.
It was a day like any other day. The smell of peppers roasting and tomato sauce simmering against a backdrop of grilled meat sang to him. The clanging of dishes was victory music to Gianni’s ears and for reasons unknown he arrived at work that day in a particularly rosy mood.
His luck got even better. Gianni needled Gus. “Gus! Gus! Hey! Look at her!”
Gianni discreetly pointed out a table in the corner window with two young women. The one facing the kitchen was striking. Cascading, deep, mahogany curls framed sensitive brown eyes and an enthusiastic, inviting smile. Her lithe figure amply visible thanks to the way she angled her body in her chair.
“Ya, I know. I saw her first. Forget it though. You’re just a cook and she looks pretty fancy.”
“What do you know?”
“I know you don’t have a chance filos.”
Gianni disagreed, “Why not? She looks nice. I bet she won’t judge based on those things.”
Gus mocked, “I thought I was supposed to be the dreamer in this partnership.”
“Well I’m going to try to talk to her.”
“Don’t do it,” Gus warned. “You know the rules.”
“Georgios is out all day,” Gianni retorted. “No one else cares.”
Gianni approached the stunning beauty, who was accompanied by another girl almost as pretty and about the same age. He guessed they were about 18. “Hi, what’s you name?”
The striking brunette looked him up and down approvingly. She fixed her eyes on his and with a confident smile offered, “I’m Naomi,” She gestured across the table at her winsome companion. “This is my cousin Elena. And you are…?”
“Gianni. I Gianni. You name, beautiful. It means?”
“It means pleasant or beauty.”
The ever-helpful Elena, noting that Naomi was being a bit more flirtatious than usual, rose, “If you will excuse me.”
Without being prompted, Gianni offered, “I from Greece. I arrive a few month ago. Gus is my friend. Over there. We come together in May.”
“That sounds exciting,” Naomi, genuinely interested, answered. “I came here from England myself, but that was when I was a little girl.”
“Now you live nearby here? You haven’t been inside before.”
“No. I’m not from here. I’m visiting my aunt and uncle who live just on the other side of the park. Elena’s parents.”
“Oh? Where you are from now?”
“Well, I was from near London England, but now I’m from Toronto. In Canada.”
“Canada is far from here,” considered Gianni.
“It’s just a day’s drive on the bus. Not that far. I come here with my mother every summer to visit. Don’t you just love this city? It’s just the best!”
Gianni pondered out loud, “Day’s drive…” Returning to the present, he answered, “Yes, I like here. Is my dream since little boy in Thouria.”
“Thouria. Is that where you are from?”
“Yes. Near Kalamata. Is small place, but beautiful. “
“Did you love it?” asked Naomi.
“Yes is beautiful. We have the sea and olive groves for far as can see the eye. And my family there.”
“I think that is enough to make it a special place.”
Amping up the charm, Gianni probed, “When you will go home?”
“After the weekend,” Naomi answered with just a little less enthusiasm than earlier in the conversation.
Gianni counted, “Only 5 more days?”
“Six,” clarified Naomi.
“You will come back and see me?”
“Maybe,” she flirted.
Gianni excused himself to return to the kitchen, grinning inside.
A mere two days later, Naomi returned to the café by herself, something that would be considered inappropriate for an 18-year-old girl to do in Greece.
“Gus. Gus. Look. She’s back,” Gianni babbled, his excitement transparent despite his attempts to hide it.
“This has to do with you?” asked Gus with some disdain.
“Of course! Well, I hope.”
Gianni walked over with a slight swagger and asked, “Hi Naomi. You are fine?”
“Hi. I’m doing very well thank you. How are you? You look hot. It must be like a furnace in that kitchen.”
“I am used to. I am from Greece, remember?” replied Gianni, gaining confidence. “Where your cousin is?”
“Visiting someone in the hospital. I figured I should come over. You know – for cake and coffee. Can I get the same as last time?” She asked coyly.
Gianni doubted she really needed coffee and cake. He bragged, “I in charge kitchen. I will get you waitress for order.” Knowing he might never have another chance, he mustered up every ounce of courage he had and asked, “We can go out maybe? Before you go? For coffee only.”
Naomi hesitated, “I don’t know Gianni. I’m not looking to get involved with someone from another country. And I’m leaving so soon.”
“I want to have coffee only. Not involved. On Saturday?”
Naomi didn’t resist the second time and responded, “Okay. What about the coffee shop across the street? 11 on Saturday?”
“Please. I see you Saturday Naomi at 11.”
Returning to the kitchen of the Patmos, Gianni quickly came back down to earth as he was chided by a clearly agitated Gus, “I can’t believe you are trying to go out with her when I told you I saw her first.”
“You are kidding, right?”
“No. I told you the other day, I saw her first. I was going to talk to her, but you went over before I could do anything,” Gus protested.
Gianni wasn’t sure how serious Gus was, but it was clear he wasn’t totally joking around. Gianni just buried his head in his cooking until the end of the day. They didn’t speak back at the apartment. The next day, as Gus mindlessly cut the ingredients for the day’s stew, he announced that he would be relocating that weekend, to a room in a boarding house near the Patmos, from which he would also soon move on. Gianni and his filos argued for the first time he could remember. Neither knew that this was one of the last times they’d be together.
Gianni took his time walking the 50 feet from the car to the back door of his restaurant. The industrial, immaculate kitchen had nothing to distinguish it from any other. He smelled coffee and sweets, the smell reminding him of Naomi. He had met her in a restaurant and they had their first real date in one as well. A glance at the grills summoned images of working with his boyhood friend at another Patmos restaurant and the falling out they had a decade ago.
Gianni was beaming from ear to ear. He made sure to have his best clothes cleaned and pressed and was 10 minutes early for their Saturday morning coffee. As Naomi walked in to meet him, he was struck again by her beauty and for the first time noticed her alluring brown eyes. His heart raced slightly as he offered his hand and felt her golden, petal-soft skin. This was a very special girl he thought.
She smiled at him, “I’m impressed that you’re on time and you look so nice. How are you?”
Gianni’s English was good enough to know that was a slight, however unintentional it might have been. Carefully he offered, “I am fine. You are fine?”
“Yes, thank you,” Naomi affirmed. “Should we get a table?”
Gianni motioned to the waiter and summoned up his best English, “Can we sit here please?”
“Sure. Anywhere is fine,” assured the waiter.
They sat down and Gianni pulled a rose out from inside his jacket. “This for you.” Naomi blushed and thanked him. Gianni, ever the sensitive one, and not sure if the rose would be appropriate, was relieved by her reaction.
They had coffee and pastries, laughed a lot, and talked about Greece, Toronto, and New York. Naomi talked of her job at the Simpson’s Department Store dress counter and her dream to be a writer. Gianni expanded on his plans to open a restaurant, one that would be better than Patmos. The best one in Astoria he told her. Then he joked, “Or maybe in Toronto?”
Naomi giggled, “You are nice, but methinks you are a bit of a dreamer.”
After coffee, a walk in the nearby Astoria Park was an obvious choice. It was a beautiful late August day, the sun dialed down from the New York summer heat. After a few minutes, Gianni summoned the courage to hold her hand and she took it willingly, answering the gesture with a shy smile as she met his eyes. Then, with increased confidence spawned by several laps of Astoria Park, he gently nudged her to the edge of the path and, wasting no time lest his courage wane, kissed her on the cheek close to the ear and the nape of the neck. The back of Naomi’s neck tingled. She blushed and shifted her gaze to the cobblestone path they were circumnavigating, and they resumed their journey. After another lap or so, he stopped and turned to face her, grabbed her chin until they locked eyes. His bravery at an all-time high, he went in for the prize – a kiss on the lips. She giggled and turned her head, Gianni missing her lips and landing on her cheek instead.
“I have to be back by 1 PM.”
“Is too bad you are leaving to Toronto in only 2 days more.”
“Yes it is.”
“I can visit you in Canada? Toronto?”
“I don’t know Gianni. I just met you.”
“I feel like I know you since I was little boy.”
“I know. Me too. But how about we write each other for a while.”
Gianni smiled. At least she didn’t say no.
Gianni finally found the internal strength he needed to climb the steps from the restaurant to the flat. The kitchen was a mob of family and friends who quickly enveloped him. Everyone offered up their best wishes – which he politely accepted – but nothing was registering. His mind was a whirlwind. His despair matched only by his trepidation about his future and that of his young children. While thinking he’d rather they all just go home, an opening in the ring that ensnared him provided an escape route so that he could get a much-needed drink. A curved double-wide archway separated the kitchen from the living room. Gianni stepped through as if walking through a time portal. On the far side of the room was his filos, Gus, filling Gianni’s favourite chair significantly more fully than he would have 9 years ago. He had come to support his childhood friend. Their eyes met and Gianni wasted no time dashing across the well-worn area rug, a present to Naomi for their 1st anniversary. They bawled in each other’s arms, washing away a decade of animus in a heartbeat.
It had been two months since he’d met Naomi. They wrote each other every few days and spoke on the phone weekly. Gianni’s second cousin from Sparti was now living in Toronto and he would have a place for Gianni to stay, so Naomi finally agreed to let him visit.
He boarded the bus and was greeted by the smell of stale bus seats, diesel fuel, and body odor. Nothing had ever smelled better. “Where you headed?” asked the middle-aged man in the seat next to him.
Gianni effused, “Going to Toronto. To see a girl. The most special girl in Canada!” he gushed.
“Sounds exciting,” the man encouraged.
Gianni smiled. As the city gave way to the forest of the Hudson River valley he was reminded of another valley, filled with olive groves as far as the eye could see. He nestled into his seat, optimistic about what the next chapter would bring, closed his eyes, and thought, “Yes. It is.”
After catching up with his boyhood friend, Gianni called out for little Helen to meet her Theios Gus. The preschooler, ever eager to please, scurried over and clasped Gianni’s thigh like only a child does – very tightly and with her entire body.
Gianni looked down at Helen and was awash in a strange, calm, warmth. She looked so much like his Naomi, the same haunting brown eyes and flowing locks. He had a tentative feeling that everything would be alright. His soulmate lived on in this little girl, who looked up at the man he had traveled so far with, and asked “Hi. What’s your name?”
- Special thanks to Chelsea Fowler for help editing this piece
- All photos (c) Brad Poulos 2021. The photo of the house in the title is the actual two-room homestead from which John Poulos sold his parents’ furniture (without permission).