A Legacy or a Residue
Monemvasia, Greece, 1956
“A woman should never travel alone,” Etor, the hotel gigolo chided. “Especially one of childbearing age.”
He’d taken to joining Lily around sunset, sitting cross-legged on the rocks, as they watched jellyfish bob on the swelling surface of the Pélagos Sea. His lined face was still handsome, but Lily figured he was only a couple of years shy of retirement, as men half his age courted the attention of the same vacationing Countesses who used to buy Etor’s supper and handmade Italian shoes. The ladies were only a decade or so older than the bronzed Cretan now, and stared with growing resentment at the silvery roots of his auburn hair.
“You need a man,” Etor asserted. “A Greek man. The Americans can’t handle you.”
Lily had had a man. Richard. Of the Philadelphia Leavitts not the Boston Leavitts, as he was quick to point out.
Aquamarine eyes, a thick, ungovernable mane of honey and rust hair, and a mother who hummed Tangerine as she sneered at Lily through her gin and tonics.
Poor Richard. He has the soul of an artist, his friends would say. Although not the talent, Lily had wanted to add on more than one occasion after their relationship had begun its slow flush down the pink porcelain toilet of his mother’s new powder room.
Poor Richard, he’s too much of a gentleman to give that Greek girl the heave-ho now that it’s come this far. No one actually said it – that Lily knew of – but the sentiment was there. It was the uninvited guest at every party she and Richard attended together, every family dinner; unrelenting in every look, polite question, and feigned interest in what Lily was reading.
But it wasn’t Richard’s friends who really got to Lily in the end. It was the barely concealed look of relief on Richard’s face the night she “released him from their engagement” that Lily found so damned infuriating. His crafty, humiliating way of manipulating her into doing his mother’s will.
“Lilia, Lilia, Lilia,” Etor yawned, splashing his sun-torched chest with palmfuls of chilly salt water.
Lily patted Etor’s shoulder and ran her fingers through her waist-length hair. The thick, black threads tangled around her knuckles as day upon day of sunbathing was making her ends brittle.
“Would you mind?” she asked, removing a tall vial of olive oil from her beach-bag. Etor sprinkled the oil over her hair, massaging it into her dry ends.
“Of course Kástro is no place to find a husband,” Etor reminded her. “Only adulterers and seducers come here.”
Kástro, or Old Town Monemvasia, as it was known to tourists – was notorious for offering what the flashier getaways never could – secrecy. Lily had nothing to hide on this – her last, she swore to herself – trip to the tiny peninsula, but she had plenty to hide from. And it wasn’t just a broken engagement; one that came with the added embarrassment of having to admit once again that she was a screw-up when it came to matters of the heart. No, Lily realized, the heart was too specific a category. Most people back home just thought she was a screw up. Period.
It was why she’d grown to hate Boston. And the whole Eastern Seaboard, except for New York. Because despite how hard she’d tried to fit in – at Dana Hall, at the goddamned Junior League – Lily just couldn’t stand the stuck-up, intellectual pomposity of the men, or the prim, icy-cool affectations of girls who moved in cliques so armored you needed barbed wire cutters just to say hello.
She’d thought Richard was different.
And he was, at first. Late night coffees, introducing her to poets she pretended not to know, finding her family funny and eccentric instead of brash. Richard was the only non-Greek guy who’d ever had the guts to take Lily home; she had to give him that. But putting up with the long silences, the droll weekends at his parent’s “beach” house – a place set on the frigid, un-swimmable waters of Northeast Harbor, Maine – had proved to be too much. For both of them.
Her father told her not to think much about Richard of the Philadelphia Leavitts. He was destined to spend his life in old money oblivion, breathing rarified air and eating bland food. Not like her, Daddy said. Lily was the daughter of a Hellene. One who came to America at fifteen – alone – and made his own way. Theron Tassos had worked the docks, then the avenues, then the markets, while the fathers of boys like Richard sipped their brandies and talked of the world’s stage as if they were on it as anything more than a ceremonial ribbon.
Malakas, her father called them. Jerk Offs.
“Go to Greece,” her father had urged. “A few weeks on the Peloponnese will remind you of who you are.”
Only it hadn’t. It didn’t. It wouldn’t.
Greece, while a virtual banquet of indulgences, had never exactly been a place of clarity and motivation for Lily. Come to think of it, no place had. Furthermore, what Lily hadn’t counted on was how well Kástro in particular kept its confidences. The rocky cape trapped them like ghosts in a long abandoned cemetery, and as Lily walked the winding trails and footbridges, nearly every blooming bush and Medieval ruin murmured a story of some time or another when Lily had ended up flat on her back with her dress hiked above her hips.
“What place could be more pleasing to the senses?” Etor beamed, uncorking a bottle of Malvasia wine as he beheld his adopted home.
“Please,” Lily yielded, as Etor poured a liberal serving into her pewter goblet. She swished it around, watching the wine twirl.
Lily glanced up at the gigolo and caught him leering at her bare shoulders the way he did at the copy of Schiele’s Nudo Femminile that hung in the hotel lobby. She considered his attention for a moment and nearly laughed out loud. In fairness, there wasn’t much to do on Monemvasia other than take a lover. That and soak up the sun and drink sweet Malvasia.
“You don’t have time to sit on Monemvasia for weeks like a Danish tourista,” Etor insisted. “By age twenty-five you won’t be marketable anymore.”
Lily looked at her watch and nodded.
“I don’t know that I was meant for marriage,” she said aloud, but not specifically to Etor. Lily had never been in love.
“Miss Lilia!” Stavros, the concierge called. “A note for you.”
Stavros waved the sealed envelope in his hand as he teetered over the melon-shaped rocks. He nearly tumbled into the water twice, as if he didn’t make the journey from the Hotel Malvasia’s lobby to the seaside at least a dozen times a day.
“It just appeared on my desk,” he marveled. “I didn’t see who could’ve left it.”
It was a plain, white envelope – the size of an invitation – and Miss Lilia Tassos was scribbled on the back, looking more like Miso Lihila Tssas to the untrained eye.
“Thank you, Stavros.” She tucked the envelope into her beach bag, and looked back at the jellyfish, which were now floating out to sea.
“Open it,” Etor demanded. “It could be from an admirer.”
Lily smiled at the Cretan gigolo, retrieving the envelope and tearing it at the seam. She pulled out a short note scribbled in the same slapdash handwriting. Tucked inside its crease was a simple, metal card with a plus sign embossed on one side and a six-pointed star on the other. It was the size of a calling card and engraved with eight tiny Cyrillic letters.
“Well?” Etor pressed. Lily patted his hand.
“No admirer, I’m afraid. Just a man.”
Tony Geiger sat on a partial fortress wall. He’d hiked up from the waterfront an hour early to sit amongst the ruins at the top of the peninsula and smoke Chesterfields in the cool evening air. The night required a light jacket, but Tony had under-dressed on purpose. It kept him sharp when he’d had a lousy night’s sleep – taking the red-eye from Berlin to Athens and then driving another five hours to Monemvasia.
“Fuck,” he said, flicking his last good cigarette into a bush of wildflowers. He watched the butt glow like a lightening bug, then fade under the frizzy bloom of the white buds. He wished he could buy a decent pack of smokes in Greece.
“Well, it’s about time,” he murmured as he watched Lily rise up from behind a collapsed church wall. She was twenty minutes late and dressed in what looked like a white linen bathrobe that flew behind her like a spinnaker. Though he knew and understood fashion and finery, he’d never learned to appreciate it.
“Tony,” she called.
Lily had the kind of looks Tony could appreciate, complete with a big nose and a full set of lips that saved her from cuteness. As far as he was concerned, she wrecked everything she had going for her with flashy clothes and too much perfume. Despite her Boston upbringing, she looked and behaved like a new-money Greek.
“You might as well go ahead and blow my vacation,” Lily grumbled, stumbling over the broken castle steps.
Geiger rubbed the thick stubble on his cheeks and shook his head.
“Come on, Lily. What’s a girl like you got to take a vacation from – shopping?” He smiled and folded his arms. “Besides, something vaguely resembling a job might actually be good for you.”
Lily put her palms to her temples then shook her hands as if she were chasing away an odor. She caught herself smiling at him and changed her look to a smirk.
“It’s amazing what a girl will do to keep her daddy out of jail.”
Geiger pushed away from the fortress wall and pointed a finger in her face. The force of the gesture caused Lily to stumble backwards and trip on her white linen train. He grabbed hold of her arm before she could fall and drew her close.
“Your father’s an arms dealer, lady!”
He let go of her and glanced around them. Geiger then leaned back onto the stone wall, spitting over his shoulder and watching his foaming saliva disappear over the cliff-side into the black air.
“What’s it gonna be, Lily?”
Lily hated it when Geiger popped up out of the blue like this. The funny, little errands he’d sent her on – going to the Russian Tea Room at exactly 5:15 pm wearing a red skirt or leaving her purse at the Seven Sisters tube stop in London – weren’t much more than an inconvenience, but his brown eyes that told a much longer story than his thirty years, and the way he sucked in his cheeks whenever she started talking, made her feel like the kind of woman she feared she was – bored and moneyed. Lily had seen enough to know that wasn’t the way she wanted to spend her life, but she wasn’t sure what options there were for a girl like her. She looked at Geiger – into his eyes, which she often avoided – and nodded her head.
“What have you got for me this time?”
Tony Geiger reached down and moved a fallen stone about the size of a gold brick. He produced another envelope with Lily’s name on it; this one long and thick with folded papers. Lily grabbed the envelope and opened the flap, pulling out an airline ticket, itinerary, visa, and various receipts in her name.
“This is going to Moscow.”
“You’re going to Moscow,” Geiger corrected.
“Why would I go to Moscow?”
Geiger scratched his head and shrugged his shoulders. “All the good parties are happening in Moscow these days – the rich Pinkos love it.”
“I’m not a Pinko.”
Geiger smiled, for once looking sweet, lighthearted and his age. “Lily, you’re not a anything.”
Something inside her wanted to smile back at him despite the insult, but instead she rubbed her lips together as if she were redistributing her lipstick.
“A little sightseeing – Lenin’s Mausoleum and all that. You know you can view his actual body in Red Square. The Bolshevik Fuehrer.”
“No, I’ve seen it. He doesn’t look that different than he does in photos.” Geiger lit another smoke and inhaled deeply. “You still got that little present I sent you?”
Lily tucked her index finger into the bust of her dress and slid the odd metal card he’d conveyed through the hotel concierge over her collarbone. The gesture was meant as a joke – a play on something you might see in a French movie – but Tony Geiger didn’t even smile.
“Don’t lose that,” he warned. “It’s more important than your passport.”
Lily took the card and flipped it over a couple of times, running her index finger over the Cyrillic lettering. She’d thought of taking Russian at Wellesley, hoping to rule the cocktail party circuit with unfiltered phrases from Anna Karenina, but ended up learning Arabic instead. Languages were the only thing she’d ever been really good at and she collected them the way some people collected amusing dinner guests.
“It looks like a belt buckle,” she remarked.
Geiger shook his head. “For your purposes, it’ll get you a suite at the best hotel in Moscow, provided you show it to my good friend Fedot at the front desk. It’ll also help you know who your friends are.”
Lily mouthed “Fedot” and shrugged her shoulders. “And?”
“And, on a separate note, you’re now a member of the American Communist Party. Back-dated three years, of course. Like you joined in college.”
This time Lily laughed out loud. “What if the Ruskies find out I’m not?”
“Oh, but you are. I’ve made sure of it. It makes getting you in and out of Russia all the easier.”
Lily stopped laughing and squeezed the card in her palm until one of its pointy edges dug into her skin. She held it up between two fingers and then flicked it at him. Geiger didn’t move.
“Are you out of your mind?”
“Lily, keep it down.”
Lily paced in front of Geiger and then stopped, pointing her finger in his face the way he had to her. The wind was turning wild and cold, blowing her dress every which way. She wished she hadn’t worn it. “Is this about my father? Or is it about something else?”
If only, Geiger thought.
“Your father’s in Boston and he’s not going anywhere that I know of – you can call him if you want. And as for something else?” Tony folded his hands together as if he were praying. “Look…it’s not even on my radar.”
Lily hardly ever thought about that night in New York anymore either, until she thought about it, that is – the night she’d first met Tony and assumed, wrongly, that it was by chance. He’d approached her outside of her hotel as the bellman hailed her a cab. He said he was late and asked if he could share the ride. They talked about the weather – it had been lousy – and about Faulkner – whom they both loved. Then he asked her out for a drink. It occurred to her, as she found herself making love with him standing up behind a beer truck outside of Chumley’s that he’d lied about being late for an appointment. She could never, for the life of her, understand how it was that men knew they could have her without even the polite formality of a hotel room.
Then Tony just stopped in the middle of everything.
“You want to go somewhere else?” he asked.
In the cab back to the St. Regis she found he spoke Greek and Italian in addition to German and Hebrew. She didn’t speak Hebrew, but they took turns impressing each other with the languages they had in common. They also shared a love of black comedy and Tony told her that he’d never actually met a woman with a real sense of humor. He said that women he’d known liked laughing at jokes, but rarely made any.
Somehow, though, despite all of the laughing and the teasing and the fact that she was pretty sure she was the best looking girl Tony had ever gotten into bed, they “couldn’t close the deal” as he mumbled right before passing out. He blamed the two bottles of wine they’d shared when they got back to his suite, but he hadn’t seemed all that drunk to her.
Now, as she looked at him – a year and some later – he seemed a hell of a lot older than he did then. She watched as Tony Geiger bent down and picked up the metal card she’d flicked to the ground. He dusted it off and held it flat in his hand as if it were some kind of peace offering, the lines on his palm looking like deep scars.
“Lily, I don’t like your father very much, but I’ve got nothing against you. This is just something you can do pretty easily for me, that’s all.”
Geiger stepped closer to her and held his hands up as if he were going to put them on her shoulders. For a second, she thought he was going to kiss her.
“You’ll walk around for a couple of days, go to a party or two, and on the third day you’re there – three minutes before noon – a man with a doctor’s bag is going to ring the bell at your suite. When he arrives, you’ll show him the card, go to the safe in your chest of drawers, and give him the contents. The combination will be your birth date. Easy to remember.”
“I don’t need it to be easy – I remember everything.”
“Yeah, you do, don’t you?” Tony said. “Anyway, you can go home any time after that. Or stay and see Mr. Lenin’s mummy if you want.”
Lily backed up and eyed Geiger from head to toe. This was definitely different from the other times, and Lily didn’t like it. She wondered if everything else up until now had been a warm up – a series of little tests meant to help him discern whether or not she could cross a line.
“I’m going back to my hotel.”
“Lily!” Geiger called, as she turned on her heel and stomped to the slim path leading back to the castle. A thorn flower bush caught the painted silk scarf Lily had tied around her waist and the wind blew it off the tiny dagger of a petal, catching it around Tony Geiger’s ankle.
“Lily! Are you going to leave a legacy or a residue?”
Lily stopped and spun around.
Geiger opened his palms and smiled like he meant it.
This,” he said, holding up her airline tickets, “is a legacy.” Tony Geiger bent down and retrieved her scarf, letting it flail in the air. “What do you think a thing like this is? Bet it cost a pretty penny, but what’s it worth?”
Lily rolled her eyes and turned back towards the path. It was one of her favorite scarves – and it had cost a pretty penny – but he could keep it.
“Who’d you tell, Lily?”
Lily stopped and cocked her head.
“Who’d you tell I was here?”
Tony Geiger took a step forward and wobbled a little bit. He closed and opened his eyes like he was shaking off a hang-over, then fell over onto his face.
Lily sprinted over and knelt beside him, running her hand down the length of his back. Something small and shaped like a pen cap was stuck between his shoulder blades. She pulled it out and saw that the thing had a thick needle that protruded from the top. Lily gasped and threw it to the side.
“Can you talk?” She asked him.
Tony’s eyes were open and his lips were still moving – not as if he was trying to tell her something, but rather in a struggle to keep breathing. She took his hand on impulse, holding it and squeezing his fingers until Tony Geiger was gone and she was alone.
Lily wanted to cry, but her head wouldn’t let her. She stood up and rubbed her eyes, inching cautiously back from Tony’s corpse as she watched the sky and the sea. They mingled together into one black mass that could only be distinguished by sound – a whistle of the wind and whoosh of the waves.
“Bastard – where are you?” she said, as she squatted down, waiting, watching.
Nothing changed – at least not “out there.” Inside, though, she could feel the shift, the adjustment from her old life – the one with Etor and Malvasia wine and without a thing to do – to her new one.
The new one she knew nothing about, except that a CIA agent was dead on top of the ruins of Monemvasia and she was hunched there on a cliff with a billowing, white dress on – an easy target for another poison pen cap. Lily took in a sharp breath and started untying her belt and fumbling with her buttons. Her fingers were shaking and wouldn’t cooperate, so she grabbed the top of her dress at the neck and yanked as hard as she could, until half the buttons popped off and it fell to her ankles. Her tanned skin blended well with the night air and she figured at the very least Tony’s killer would have a hard time distinguishing her from a Greek Fir. Lily ducked behind the eroded fortress wall and pulled her airline tickets and the metal card from under Tony’s fingers.
Running naked back to her hotel room, Lily did not go un-noticed in the Hotel Malvasia’s lobby. But this was Kástro, after all, and there was little that could have surprised the hedonistic clientele or jaded hotel clerks.
Once inside her room, she locked the door and drank three shots of Ouzo – compliments of the house. She hid under her bed in the dark – naked, but with her wits about her – until the sun rose out of the sea and filled her room with its urine-splashed glow. It was there, under her bed, and in a fetal position, that Lily got hold of herself and made some decisions about her life.