Things Lost by Ioanna Mavrou
Things Lost, a preliminary report, scribbled on the margins of a Cyprus Airways magazine page I should remember to tear off before landing:
Ten dollars on a book I don’t feel like reading at all, not just on the plane, but possibly ever in my entire life.
A meal (twenty dollars worth) I threw up immediately before take-off in LAX. (Note to self: no more taquitos pre-flight).
My best friend Charlie’s birthday. (Two days ago, on account of stupid planning.) Lost and missed are both the same word in Greek, so it feels appropriate to include it.
We get off the plane in Larnaca and the heat feels as solid as a wall, a heated invisible blanket that wraps around my body.
“My, we’ve changed,” says the man who checks my passport, and I half-expect him to channel my mother and add, “You look too pale, go put some blush on.”
Six years in L.A. I’ve gotten used to people always telling me things, strangers commenting just because (just because I’m there, out there in the world, who knows why?).
Things said to me by random strangers just this week:
“Smile. Why you so gloom?”
“Have you given peace a chance?”
“Have ever you been to Barstow?”
And: “Would you like some of this sandwich?”
I’d like to pretend that if need be I’d make a good spy, or a scam artist, or a P.I. but of course I know it’s a big fat lie. Sometimes I hum in my head when people talk, that’s how much I can’t pay attention to things happening around me.
Things Forgotten, the Quick D’oh! Mental Report:
The list of Things Lost, left on the seat pocket in front of me squished behind two broken plastic cups bearing the flying mouflon logo, a gum wrapper, and the lame in-flight shopping guide.
When my parents take me home from the airport I tell them I’m great, then sleep for two days straight. I battle what turned out to be stomach flu in my air-conditioned bedroom while outside the temperature hits 37. Celsius is something that corresponds to temperature I’ve experienced before, Fahrenheit still seems alien in my mind. In L.A. I go by hot and cold and it works out just fine, but in Cyprus the weather demands numbers, it’s so fierce. It demands numbers and possibly virgin iceberg sacrifices. Not that anything would make a difference.
Things my mother told me I should do while I’m home:
Get a facial, get my hair cut, go see my aunt and my grandparents, make an appointment with the dentist.
Things I mentally note that I’m planning to do:
See my friends, go to the beach, get drunk every night.
That last one is not so much a plan as it is a prediction based on past history. If you can’t be honest with yourself, who can you be honest with?
On the day I finally decide to leave the house Charlie wants me to drive him around to look for this kid they call Tookie. I forget what his real name used to be. A lot of kids got nicknames in high school that stuck long after we graduated. If you were cool you got one for sure, it meant somebody liked you enough to rename you. Except of course for the kids who got bad nicknames because they stayed in class when everybody else took off, or sucked up to the teachers, or never came out to any of the parties.
Charlie is a nickname too, obviously, since no one in their right mind would name their kid the Greek version of Charles. I would rather I didn’t say what mine was. Not that I am ashamed, it’s just not who I am anymore.
Me and Charlie, we drive with the windows down because my air-conditioning is broken. I have my hair up in a ponytail and carry a little spray-bottle of water behind my seat just in case it gets unbearable, which it will, inevitably, by midday. Clouds are gathering above the whole city making the day seem more ominous somehow, as if the broken a/c wasn’t enough of a sign.
It takes seventeen hours of flying and a half hour drive to get from L.A. to Nicosia and that’s without counting the Heathrow layover. It takes at least another twenty-four hours to get over the jetlag, and then in three weeks I get to do it all over again on the other side.
August in Nicosia always reeks of heat and boredom. Everyone who could has taken their vacation time now, which makes the city feel even weirder than I expected. We stop to get canned iced-coffees at the corner store, the one with the big yellow misspelled sign that says Quicky Stop. Charlie gets some cigarettes and a scratch-off lottery ticket and I marvel at the nerve of the people who named the new sandwich shop next door The Tsunami, after the one that just killed so many people.
I’ve started to get used to new places springing up in my absence but it still feels like they change the place in tiny little increments, just a little bit, just enough to fuck with my mind.
Things that Charlie says are new since I came over last:
They’re building a mall, a huge Starbucks opened downtown, the Turkish flag occupying Pentadaktylos Mountain is now outfitted with blinking lights.
Or, as Charlie says: “The big fuck you sign, now visible day and night”.
Also, Sam’s Food won the Guinness Record for Biggest Chicken Gyro in the world.
“Why are we looking for this guy?” I ask Charlie as I continue to drive around.
I’m thinking: L.A. is like dozens of Nicosias or more, and would all of Nicosia fit in the West Side? Charlie just sits there and smokes and looks outside his window.
I stop at the traffic lights and some idiot eighteen year old whose parents bought him a car revs his engine challenging me to race him. I really shouldn’t be one to talk about parents giving you stuff, but at least mine is the Nissan old pair of shoes hand-me down equivalent.
Things me and Charlie don’t like, part 1:
Fakers, posers, idiots. Anyone who drives a Porsche Tuareg.
People who play bad music loud, or drive while talking on the phone.
People who ride their bicycles in the middle of the street instead of on the sidewalk.
People who park on the sidewalk, which in Cyprus is half the free country.
In California I drive an even older car, a beauty of a rust-bucket I bought off this crazy lady for eight hundred bucks in ’99.
“You can hardly notice the hole on the floorboard” she told me and I believed her, until my first April showers when I found myself on the 405 driving a thirty year old stick shift VW canoe. I found her number in my old agenda and dialed it, even before calling AAA from Lincoln Blvd where I hastily disembarked off the first visible exit. I got the operator recorded message telling me the number had been disconnected, which is probably better because shouting at strangers almost never leads to anything good.
“Turn here,” Charlie says, “after this corner on the left. That’s his grandma’s house.”
I let the car roll at the stop sign and turn after I make sure no one is coming. In L.A. I’ve heard people call this a California stop, here it’s too common to even have a name.
Me and Charlie, we drive around for another two hours, stopping for gas once, checking all the places we could think to look for Tookie, asking a few people but not really learning anything. This one guy, Costas, tells us he thinks he saw him at Louisiana, the pool hall, playing snooker with some other dude, so we go check it out, even though Costas has a reputation for lying.
I hadn’t been to Louiziana—with a “z” I now notice—since it got reincarnated into a brand new four-story place, one block from where it used to be in the ’90s. In the old days the place wasn’t so much a building as much as it was a bunker type of a thing, a metallic igloo with windows and lights. Now it’s made out of concrete and has foundations and everything. Grunge was King in the ’90s: The bars with their sticky floors and dark back rooms, the clubs with their cheesy decor and total lack of lighting design. They were all like caves we once lived in, safe alcohol-soaked smoky but comfortable caves.
They have a framed picture of it up on the wall—the old Louiziana—and as it hangs there, the building filling the whole faded shot, it looks like something out of a lost American landscape. Like how you’d think America looks like if you’ve never been there before. As I stand there, looking at the picture and try not to fall asleep standing up, inevitably I see someone I know coming over to talk.
In L.A. I am unknown, free, a person no one expects anything from, but sometimes I have to explain who I am and where I come from.
“Do you have a map,” I sometimes say. “Are you good in geography?”
In Nicosia I make polite chit-chat or like, right now, say “hi” and make a run for it.
We drive to Tookie’s ex-girlfriend’s house, a nice girl who studies advertising, or marketing, or one of those things that stopped being useful in the 1980s but true to form are only now picking up momentum in Cyprus. She doesn’t know where he is, and neither does his cousin who owns a motorcycle repair shop. Me and Charlie, we zigzag around town, knocking on doors, making calls, and the day feels like it means something. I decide that I think Tookie is in some kind of trouble and Charlie is worried about him and we’re looking to find him and help him out. I only talk to like, five people here anymore, but I would do the same for either one of them.
We go to a tattoo place on Nikis Avenue where Tookie supposedly sometimes hangs out and where a big guy is getting a gardenia inked on his ankle and looks as comfy as if he’s getting a pedicure. Nobody has seen Tookie there either, and we get back to driving around, making a couple more stops downtown, combing the town like contemporary Cypriot Raymond Chandler characters.
Things I like and don’t like about Nicosia:
How eventually all roads either lead to the highway or the broken circle that is the Old Town.
That we have no beach.
That there are not enough movie theaters around.
That I can’t wait to come back only to want to leave again.
Sometimes when I’m back I wake up in the middle of the night and don’t know where I am. For a few minutes I sit and stare into space trying to make out the shapes of things in the dark, trying not to freak out. As soon as my hand reaches the phone that’s shaped like a cat I figure it out. Only one place that can be, and I dial Charlie’s number, one of the few I still remember by heart. It doesn’t matter what time it is, he always answers.
“What are you doing,” I always ask, not always happy with the answer. But he always picks up no matter what and his voice calms me down even when he says stupid stuff to get a reaction, stuff like “I’m hunting rabbits with my BB gun, want to hear their last words?”
It is the third hour of the Tookie patrol and I’m getting hot and tired. I ask Charlie if he wants to go get a coke and I stop at a KFC just because it’s where we are at the time and I’m tired of driving. Charlie doesn’t drive, but it makes him mad when I ask why so I don’t bring it up anymore.
At the KFC we only get a couple of cokes and some fries because we’re broke almost, and we sit and share them in silence. A few tables down there’s a couple making out like crazy, and across from us a five-year-old is giving his mom a hard time, his screams filling up the empty room mixed with the mom’s pleading whispers. Life feels pointless as it often does when you’re in Nicosia in the summer.
Charlie is making a cardboard man out of the empty cigarette pack, burning holes for eyes and mouth with his matches.
“Marlboro man,” he says and laughs, “This one too will die of lung cancer.”
He burns the whole thing in the ashtray while the kid watches the tiny flames mesmerized, the mom gives us a mean look. I watch the cigarette man slowly burn down to ashes and drink my coke to the very last drop, sucking the air out of the cup like I used to when I was a kid, making that annoying sound. We could spend our whole lives doing this, doing absolutely nothing.
When Charlie came to see me in L.A. that one time we took a cigarette box of things he and I wrote down when we were in school and emptied it out off the beach in Malibu and watched it drown in the tide of the Pacific Ocean.
Things me and Charlie did when we were teenagers that were stupid or worse:
Drove drunk at least once, accidentally set fire to someone’s balcony by setting a trash bag fire balloon loose in Charlie’s neighborhood.
(One time in Ayia Napa we stole bread and croissants off a bakery’s front stoop at five a.m., but I don’t think that counts. Everybody does that at least once; it’s like a rite of passage.)
“When did you and Tookie start hanging out?” I ask Charlie when we’re sitting on the grass at Eleon facing the shallow end of the pool. Charlie is squinting straight ahead and I am watching this kid do cannon balls off the spot where the diving board used to be, before they upgraded the whole place to fancy. All places seem to be getting shinier now, as if the whole country has been spruced up in my absence. Everything is pretty much where it was, but nothing feels exactly right.
The kid and his friends are now comparing tattoos. One girl has this beautiful dragon on her back, but also one of those thorny arm-bracelets that freak me out.
“What? Charlie says, a minute later still lost in thought or spacing out, I can’t tell which, and when I repeat my question he still doesn’t answer me.
If you expect things would be different here somehow, you played and lost, as the local expression goes. Played and lost. Ran out of luck, got screwed, end of story. I should write that on a list and carry that too, except I can’t figure out a heading.
Things people say you shouldn’t do, that I did:
Stole, lied, burned bridges, swam with my stomach full, talked to strangers, leaped before I looked, drank the Cool-Aid.
None of this is really relevant today, but Charlie is boring the hell out of me, and this kicks off my internal list-making. Here’s another orphan for the internal archives: The only reason I moved to L.A. was that it was far away from here and looked good on T.V., please don’t tell my mother.
Things my mother and the INS don’t need to know:
That after the car incident I took a whole year off and spent my tuition on Hollywood bar-hopping. That this nice man called Bob at the Advisors’ office signed my F-1 student visa form, and that’s how I could get out and back into the country. That was about the time Charlie came to hang out for a while, and we had a hell of a time. Like the night we sat outside at the Bar Marmont dressed like idiots drunk out of our minds. That same night we saw the coyote cross the road off Hollywood Boulevard and Charlie said: “That is my spirit guide” and when I asked why, he said “because I too, will never catch the road runner.”
We did Lala’s for steaks, Lola’s for drinks and for a while it felt like our old selves were fine with our new lives.
“All this driving around reminds me of when we were nineteen,” I tell Charlie. “Hey what’s with the vow of silence, man,” I say when he doesn’t reply. We’re coming up on the fourth hour and I’m starting to lose the plot, I am one step away from unraveling.
“High school is in the bottom of the Pacific Ocean,” Charlie says, “it’s buried under the rocks of Malibu and a billion gallons of whiskey.”
I think it’s the first real thing he said to me all day, other than the Marlboro Man bit. I try to extend the moment, ask him what’s been happening with everybody else we still talk to, but he goes back to unresponsive. The moment stays a closed little bubble that just floats over my head, and I go back to driving and thinking.
Things me and Charlie used to like, a random list:
Driving by the beach at night. Drinking Coronas preceded by tequila shots.
Making up stories to pass the time.
Good wedding loukoumia, the ones that are sprinkled with lots of sugar on top and are like 90 percent pistachios inside.
People who pronounce pistachio with a “ch” like in chair, because usually they are the same people who bake really good pistachio cakes.
Paula, Charlie’s oldest sister, who guided us when we were small and vulnerable, and taught us how to get out of high school sane and alive.
It’s funny how when you don’t think of a person for so long it almost surprises you to remember they exist. I never thought I’d be one of those people who waxed nostalgic about things of long ago, but it’s worse than that, I remember how things felt like.
Like Paula, and how she used to be like my sister too, crazy and always there no matter what, for that period of time. The only person I’ve ever known to show up in public with her hair in curlers and a night gown on, to emergency-pick us up from a party. Straight out of a movie, not giving a fuck, or like the time she tried to call someone a son of a bitch and her words got jumbled so it came out something like Savannah beach, and me and Charlie tried to keep a straight face. Paula, like all of the female Little Women characters rolled into one—except probably not Amy or Aunt March, because they were annoying and lame.
How can you be close to someone and then lose them completely, it feels wrong, and what feels worse is not even noticing it the whole time, not even remembering let alone feeling bad about it.
Sometimes I think there is a hole in the world where things fall into. They get there via a dark underground tunnel. Or by pneumonic tubes, like the ones in that office in Century City where I temped that one time. Woosh. There goes another person or thing out of your life.
We’re back downtown at this one café called the Greek equivalent of Red Bicycle, we’re drinking frappés and still not talking when I remember who Tookie is. I see him walking in, tall guy, used to wear glasses but doesn’t anymore, and before I can say anything Charlie tackles him and starts pounding on him with no warning.
“I want my pills back.” Charlie screams at him. “I know you took them and I want them back.”
I try to come up with a list: Things to Say to Your Best Friend at his Intervention, but all I can do is watch, until a few guys from the café pull the two apart and Charlie is standing next to me with his shirt torn and his lip bleeding. I think how maybe you can’t stage an intervention if you only talk to five people, and how Paula would know what to do, and maybe there’s a way I could figure this out.
As we walk outside and back to the car I stare at the place where a movie theater used to be but now there’s a sign that says “Bingo, Monday Nights.” I squint my eyes, try to turn it back to its original form and shape but it refuses to change.
“What do you want to do now,” I ask Charlie, in my mind already packing my bags and watching the landscape from the plane unfolding below like the birthday cakes my mom used to bake me when I was little, with their green frosting fields and tiny perfect pantespani houses.
Downtown is quiet, only for a moment the streets are all empty and there are no cars passing by, and for that moment it’s just the two of us standing on the sidewalk looking at each other with our hair blowing in our eyes. Finally the heat breaks.
Ioanna Mavrou is a writer from Nicosia, Cyprus. Her short stories have appeared in Electric Literature, Okey-Panky, The Rumpus, Paper Darts, and elsewhere. She runs tiny publishing house Book Ex Machina and is the editor of Matchbook Stories: a literary magazine in matchbook form.