As soon as the plane takes off, Helena has a fit of the giggles. It’s overwhelming. Like a cluster of hiccups pushing to break free. The man sitting next to her shoots her a look. He probably thinks she is a weirdo. She covers her mouth with a hand, but doesn’t stop. She can’t. She is living an adventure, the first in too many years. She is fifteen again, sneaking out of the house with smudged purple all over her eyes, climbing on the backseat of a motorbike tucked out of sight from her mother’s balcony.
She is travelling across the sea to see a man who, as far as she knows, might be married. Or, perhaps even worse, might not even remember her. Yes, if she really thinks about it—which so far she’s been avoiding—it’s very likely he has forgotten about her. They haven’t spoken for months, she hasn’t even told him she is coming. And, anyway, they were together for a time that now seems shorter than this flight.
No one knows the real reason she is going to Palma de Mallorca. Helena hasn’t gone around talking about it. Not because she is ashamed. No. It’s because she believes life would be so much more fun with secrets. When she was younger, she used to have so many. Small and big alike. Her secrets grew up with her. The bruises on her hands from climbing onto the furthest rock from the beach, where she was strictly forbidden to swim to. The scratches from the crabs she caught and then freed again in the water. The tired eyes and stale breath she had to hide from her mother after sneaking out for a concert. The sound of her very first boyfriend’s motorcycle zooming away she had to pretend she didn’t hear. God, she missed having secrets. She hasn’t had any in so long. She has been craving a dirty little secret of her own. Something to keep her up at night, to look for on her skin instead of wrinkles and spots. To reassure her that she is, indeed, still alive.
“Palma?” her colleagues had asked. “In autumn? Wouldn’t it have been better to go to Tenerife or Gran Canaria?”
“The flights were too expensive,” she lied. “Also, I’ve always wanted to see the orange trees in Sóller.”
Katka, her boss, was the only one who didn’t make any comments when she asked for two days off. She just nodded, clasped her hands to her chest, and smiled. She must have noticed her being a bit off lately. Helena was sure everyone else had too. Working for a small branch of an international bank in Prague, they all swam in each other’s personal business and drama. Wedding proposals, break-ups, early retirements, arguments, and relatives’ deaths flew from mouth to ear like paper planes in a rowdy classroom. Still, even if they didn’t, it would be difficult not to notice the greyness, which follows Helena everywhere.
She leans her forehead against the cabin window. She can already see a triangle of water looking up through the layers of clouds. Her heart flutters. She closes her eyes and almost smells the sea breeze. She imagines dipping her toes in the water, then taking a few steps forward until the sea envelopes her hips. How wonderful would that be? How liberating? Just as it was when she was a little girl in Spili, her hometown in Crete.
Helena can’t tell the exact moment when the ‘clouds’—that’s how she has baptized the familiar feeling of foggy, bottomless misery—started. Before her mother’s death, surely, which happened just a month ago. But that made it worse.
Since she got back from her funeral in Crete, she has become even quieter. When someone asks how she is doing, she answers with a question herself—Not bad, you?—sending it back with the speed of a professional tennis player’s serve.
She stayed in Greece for only three days. Just enough time to go to the funeral, thank the people who came, spend a bit of time with her cousins, uncles and aunts. With her mother gone, nobody else was left in her immediate family. Her dad had died before she started elementary school. After the funeral, she finished off a few formalities: paperwork to go through, bills to pay, as if her mother’s life was just another procedure to archive.
Her cousins wanted her to stay longer, “Why not, Helena? Can’t you just get more time off? We need each other now.”
“It’s a busy time at work, I really can’t leave them with all my stuff to do on top of theirs,” she made up, guilt surging up her blood. Still, she couldn’t help it. Even just the thought of sleeping one more night in her mother’s house left a sour taste. The musty smell, the tiny, oh so tiny, bedroom of her own teenage years, the greasy floral wallpaper everywhere. The black-and-white pictures staring at her through their heavy oval frames. No, she really couldn’t stay any longer.
After her return to Prague, she slipped back into her usual routine as if it were a dress she had forgotten on her bed before leaving. She was alright during the day. But every evening, in the studio flat where she had been living on her own for years, she felt colder than she ever did before. She turned the heater on to maximum, took boiling showers, and wore layer over layer. No matter what she did, she couldn’t shake off the feeling of having locked herself in the frozen food section of the supermarket.
She always ended up dragging all the blankets she had to bed. And for some baffling reason, in the darkness all she could think of was the stranger she had met about a year ago, in Zurich. That memory, which she had left gathering dust in a corner of her mind for so long, still managed to trigger hot flashes in her chest, neck, face.
She had been at a conference. As usual, she was bored. She had always found it hard to pay attention for a long time during ordinary conversations, let alone conferences and workshops. When he sat next to her, she had already slipped into her own little world. From the very start, he tried to make her laugh. “Look at him,” he said in English, an icing of Spanish accent on his R’s. He was hinting at the speaker with his eyebrows. “I bet his mom ironed his shirt for him. He seems the type.” That’s all he ended up doing that afternoon: making her laugh. He wasn’t her cup of tea. Black, thick hair curling above the top of his shirt. Brows so bushy that they were brushing against each other in the middle. Hard, well-defined features, as though an artisan had carved them into wood with a firm hand. He reminded her of a hotel guest—she couldn’t think of his name—in an episode of her favourite British comedy, Fawlty Towers. Helena was positive her younger self wouldn’t have given the man sitting next to her a second look. On the other hand, her almost forty-year-old self—well, that was different. She didn’t know if it was because she was wiser, lonelier or both, but she noticed whenever he told a joke, a constellation of fireworks sparkled in his eyes.
They were staying at the same hotel. He was the one to invite her out for a drink. She was the one to invite him up to her room. Since she hadn’t slept with a man for a couple of years, she felt self-conscious, out of her depth. However, it went surprisingly well; not so much for the sex, which was uncoordinated and awkward, the way it usually was with someone new, but more for the part afterwards. She was about to stand up to say goodbye, when he asked her, “Can I?” just before hugging her from behind. He kept her in his arms until he fell asleep. Helena lay awake for the longest time. She was aware of everything: his stubble brushing against her shoulder whenever he stirred in his sleep, the smell of his skin, which, weirdly enough, reminded her of a dozing wild animal, a bear maybe. The softness of his hair, which earlier she’d grabbed to pull him closer and now sprawled, messy, on his pillow. A flush of adrenaline tingled from her toes to the crown of her head, just at the thought of another body so close to hers. She didn’t expect lying in the arms of a stranger could do the trick; chase away the cold, which always stalked her at night. The warmth emanating from him defrosted her veins like a fast-acting radiator.
She realized how little human touch she had experienced in Prague. Partly, because of the cultural difference compared to Greece, where her family and friends, and especially her mom, were always eager to express their affection through kisses on the cheeks, caresses, and hugs. Partly, because she didn’t have any close friends in the Czech Republic. She knew it was also her fault. She didn’t like people to cross the imaginary circle she had drawn all around her. She was willing to volunteer only a limited set of information about herself: what she did on a daily basis, what she liked to do to relax, some basic facts about her childhood and youth in Crete. She had the impression what she told others was not enough to get to know her, care for her, come back for more. Still, she couldn’t be any different. Since her father died, she had always been bracing herself for another tragedy to happen, especially someone leaving her, of their own accord or due to extraordinary circumstances. For Helena, keeping everybody at arm’s length was simply a matter of survival.
Also that evening, with that man, she had been rigid, reserved. He asked her a few questions, she answered with her classic bare minimum and didn’t ask anything back. From her experience, it was better that way. She didn’t want to find out he had children, a partner, a wife. Or listen to his lies. Worse, get attached. She was just looking for some company. And, of course, some pleasure. To feel desirable again.
The hug had been a total surprise. So intimate and familiar, as if he had known her for so much longer than a day. When he finally let go of her and rolled onto his side, Helena’s entire body was left aching to be touched again. She couldn’t remember the last time someone had held her with such tenderness. Her mother, most likely, when she said goodbye to her—she would always squeeze her tight when she left—on her last visit to Crete, which felt, and was, like ages before.
In the morning, he got dressed slowly, lingering on his shirt’s buttons.
“Thank you,” he told her, looking down at his hands. As awkward as she had been when she had invited him to her room. Was he rusty as well?
“I’m being transferred to Mallorca next week. There you go.” He handed her a freshly printed business card. “This is the branch address, you know,” a hand across his hair, “if you come on holiday and want a guide.”
The first sequence of letters on the card danced in front of Helena’s eyes. Mikel. So that was his name. She hadn’t properly caught it when he’d introduced himself at the conference; she had the bad habit of tuning out when exchanging names with people. Afterwards, it had seemed rude to ask for it again.
“Oh, I don’t think my mobile is on there…if you want to text me sooner, here it is.” He took the card from her hands, their fingers touching lightly. He scribbled the number.
Later that day, she sent him a WhatsApp so that he’d have her number too. It was her way to hand over the responsibility of writing first. Then she hid the card behind the others in her wallet. As time passed by, more paper came to bury Mikel’s details further out of sight.
Mikel wrote her just once, almost two months later, to wish her Merry Christmas. She replied with a short message and never bothered to text him again. His face, name, arms had slipped away from her thoughts. Yet, the first night after her mother’s funeral, her mind went back to Mikel’s hug. And so it did the night after and the one after that. Helena couldn’t explain to herself why he was always popping up behind her eyes. She was missing him, wasn’t she? But why? Why him?
In her life she had held many men, some of whom she had known for longer, had been fond of, even loved. Men she sometimes had shared with things that seem unthinkable now, from movie and pizza nights on the sofa to other people’s weddings, from New Year’s resolutions to gym memberships, from flats to cars, from pets to, once, an STD. And still she wanted to see him, talk to him. Mikel. It is so odd that the only person she wants to speak to about her mother is someone she barely knows. She doesn’t even remember mentioning her to him during that one night they spent together.
She needs to know what this means, if it means anything at all. Besides, it’s not that she has anything to lose. Only an adventure to gain. “Cabin crew, prepare for landing,” the pilot’s voice creaks from somewhere above her. Goosebumps blossom on her bare arms, all the way up to her T-shirt sleeves. She had to take off her jumper halfway through her flight; her skin seemed to be melting underneath it. Here we go, almost there, she sighs. She chuckles again. She still finds the whole idea exhilarating, so she repeats it to herself one more time: she’s on a plane to Palma, following the trail of a stranger’s hug.
As soon as she arrives, she goes straight to a café and sits at a table outside. It’s warm, especially for November. She can’t see the sea yet, but feels that it’s close. It is in the air, in the two seagulls she has seen flying one behind the other when she looked up at the sky on her way to the café. At some point during these three days, she has to go to the beach, take in the sea. She has to.
She orders a sangria, closes her eyes. Forgets about the stomping of feet all around her. The chirping of birds moving closer and then away. The ‘gracias,’ ‘adios’ and ‘¿qué toma usted?’ that chase after each other like children playing tag. She focuses on the warmth of the sun on her cheeks. If she wanted to, she could call off the whole thing. Nobody knows about her silly plan. “I’ve come to Mallorca only to have a break from the Czech cold,” she could repeat to herself like a mantra. Until she starts to believe it.
She decides to take the rest of this Thursday for herself. She doesn’t check in at her hotel until much later, scared of wasting precious hours of daylight. She wanders around the city until she gets tired of the rattling sound of her carry-on wheels on the cobblestone streets.
Before getting undressed and napping in her freshly made bed, she lays her hand luggage on top of the desk, opens it, and leaves it unpacked. Just as it was for over a month when she first moved to Prague. Back then she felt too temporary to bother taking out her few belongings from her two suitcases. She was sure something—most likely, an unexpected tragedy, like the death or illness of a relative—would come up at any moment, forcing her to move back to Crete. During those first evenings, she was never fully present with Alexander, her boyfriend. No matter what they were doing—cooking, watching TV, even making love—Helena’s ear was constantly cocked at the door. She knew sooner rather than later someone would knock to inform her, her big adventure was over. She was wrong. Nobody ever came. Eventually, she did unpack. Alexander, who wanted their flat to feel homey, to feel like theirs even though they were renting it, asked her to. However, her carry-on, in a corner of each one of the four bedrooms she has had in her seven years in the Czech Republic, always seemed to remind her there could be somewhere else to go to. Another life to live.
After her nap, she puts on a fresh change of clothes and takes herself out for some tapas. She discovers she enjoys going unnoticed in impossibly packed bars, where people stand elbow to elbow despite being strangers.
The next day, she wakes up with a pounding headache. She always seems to forget the road to a hangover is now only a few glasses long. Her breakfast resolution is to act like the grownup she is supposed to be. She has to go and see where Mikel works. She needs to. No matter what she has been telling herself, out of nervousness or fear, she’ll regret going home without even trying. To meet him, talk to him, see if the spark—if there even was one—is still there.
She sits inside a café in front of his bank, builds a fort out of her cappuccino and the novel she hasn’t even opened since packing it. Her eyes brush against the words without taking them in. Every few minutes, they hop beyond the page, search the road behind the glass. A lifetime later, or so it seems, there he is.
She recognizes him immediately. His strong jawline, his broad nose, his curly dark hair. He’s squinting in the sunshine. One hand above his eyebrows, as if he were trying, and failing, to perform the hand salute. Two other men at his side. Are they on their lunch break? What if they come in here?
Helena scratches her hand, carves white doodles into her skin. This is all wrong. She doesn’t want to see him with other people. It’d be awkward enough if it were just the two of them, her coming back into his life unannounced. Let alone with others. How would he introduce her to them? As a ‘friend’? A colleague from another branch? Or simply by name? But what if he doesn’t remember it, remember her? A cold shiver engulfs the back of Helena’s head, as she imagines Mikel gasping for words, his eyes darting from her to the waiter, to the door. No. She wants to spare herself the humiliation, him the embarrassment. She has to flee, through the back exit, if there is one. But her stomach feels rock-hard, her legs weak. All she manages to do is stare at Mikel. He is shorter than she remembered. Shorter than the men standing next to him. The word ‘squat’ pops into her head. She holds her breath, releases it only when the group walks into a different café.
She won’t text him, she decides there and then. She takes herself for a ride on the electric tram. She visits Sóller. Shortly after her arrival, it starts to rain. The scent of the orange trees dancing cheek to cheek with the smell of the wet ground is overwhelming. Everyone rushes back onto the tram. She doesn’t. She’ll wait for the next one. She doesn’t have an umbrella, but doesn’t care. Not for her clothes, her hair, her purse. The rain is both warm and cold on her skin. She loves its touch.
She has a flash of herself as a teenager, plunging into the sea on a warm autumn night with her dress still on. Her cousins running down the beach to catch up with her, and then stopping on the shore. The only sound in the night, besides their panting and laughing, her name. Helena, they called and called, shaking their heads. Nobody dared to follow her in. Helena didn’t blame them, she knew they were scared their parents would catch them tiptoeing back to their room all soaked and shivery. Her mom wouldn’t be happy either, but Helena couldn’t resist. The sea was so lonely and quiet that night…it needed some company. It was calling her name too. She swam further from the shore. She wanted to capture the reflection of a star, but her hands grasped only water. She looked up at the sky and for a moment the world felt so much bigger and full of possibilities than it ever had before. Her vision blurred. She closed her eyes and rubbed her palms on their sockets. When she opened them again, they were a bit itchy, but she could see more clearly. She licked the salty water off her lips and tilted her head back to the stars.
That night, Helena hadn’t realised just how happy she was. She understood it only as an adult, when she’d already left Crete. Sometimes, out of the blue, the hot jet of her shower, an early morning swim in the pool or a quiet late afternoon in the spa hot tub, just before closing time, brought her back to that moment in the sea. When she had been one with the water, belonged to it.
The drizzle is turning into a downpour now, but she still doesn’t move. She is feeling everything, as if the colours had a sound to them and the smells were fingers touching her. When did the colour green become so bright? The leaves of the orange trees look like palms opening towards her. A cool breeze tickles her neck. She wraps her arms around her waist, half-bouncing on the spot to keep warm. She looks around, a smile blossoming on her face. Yes, she’s still the only one here; the approaching tram is nothing but a yellow spot in the distance. She loosens up, laughs out loud. When was the last time I actually stopped to take in the world? she thinks as the clatter of the tram wheels swallows the echo of her laughter. I can’t even remember. I don’t see the beauty anymore. Not like this, not like today.
On the ride back to Palma, she starts a new text to Mikel. It feels like a spontaneous decision, like the one that took her to Spain in the first place. She’s shivering from the cold, dripping water all over her seat. She remembers his skin against hers, his warmth.
‘Hi Mikel, I hope you’re well. I’m in Palma, I’ve come here with a friend, but she left this afternoon.’ She stops typing, bites her lower lip, taps the tips of her shoes on the floor, then adds, ‘I was wondering if your offer of being my guide is still open?’ Too flirty, even though isn’t that the point? Still, she deletes this last phrase and instead writes, ‘I know it’s short notice, but are you perhaps free for a drink tonight?’
She presses send, then tucks her phone away, pulls it out again, turns it off, puts it back in her purse. She doesn’t want to stare at it, waiting, hoping. What if he doesn’t reply until she’s back in Prague, what if he doesn’t reply at all?
She switches her mobile back on only when she has already been back in her hotel room for over an hour. Long enough for her to slip out of her damp clothes and take a hot shower. One new message, she reads on the screen as she steps out of the bathroom wearing the hotel bathrobe. The glow of the lampposts filters through the open window. Helena pulls the curtains, takes a big breath, and opens the SMS.
‘Cool that you’re here. Sure. El Huerto at 9.00? It’s a bar in Plaza de España,’ Mikel has answered, surprising her.
Deep down, she wasn’t counting on him replying so fast. And agreeing to meet her, especially tonight. She thought he’d have better things to do, plans—even just a football match to watch on his own, a cold beer in his hand. But maybe he was waiting for something to happen, anything, to spice up his Friday evening. Or he’s just desperately lonely. Like me, she catches herself thinking. She fires a reply back (‘Ok, see you there’), drops her phone on the windowsill, and walks to the long hallway mirror.
She lets the bathrobe slide off her body. Hands on her hips, she takes a good look at herself, which she never does. Not anymore. Actually, she has gotten into the habit of avoiding her reflection whenever she can. In the morning, she brushes her teeth looking down at the sink. She combs her hair and puts her mascara on sitting on the edge of her bed, eyes barely opened. She does check she looks decent enough for work, but only in the dark windows of the parked cars on the way to her bus stop.
She stares at her bloated belly, which once upon a time used to be flat, the two long wrinkles on her forehead, the armpit fat poking out from her bra. She ducks her chin and sighs. She looks so much older than two years ago, when she went on her last proper date—a disappointingly inconsequential dinner at an Italian restaurant in Prague with the friend of a friend. Or a year ago, when Mikel saw her naked. I’m not ready, she catches herself thinking. I might never be ready again.
Helena takes her eyes off the mirror, shakes her head. Come on, stop it. Stop going there. Yet, as she moves to her carry-on, she starts to feel empty, as if someone had vacuumed all of her emotions from the pit of her stomach. Oh no. Not here. Not again. But she already knows it’s too late. The ‘clouds’ have hunted her down. She observes herself choosing a dress—she has only taken two with her—putting makeup on and fixing her hair. She is as detached as if she were watching a character on Ulice, the Czech soap opera she only half-follows when she irons.
Mikel is waiting for her at the entrance to the bar. The same warm smile he had on at the conference. A different shirt that smells clean. He has shaved and put on cologne. He has made an effort. As she kisses him on both cheeks, she checks for a change within her: a faster pulse, flushed skin, nerve endings that tingle. Nothing. She’s still empty. She’d like to stay present, but can’t. Again she is looking at herself from above, like a hidden camera. Or a fly. Or maybe the audience of a reality show. Critiquing herself, judging herself. Laughing.
He takes control, orders wine and tapas for two. He tries his best to keep the conversation going: How’s work? And your family? What have you been up to? And what are your plans for the Christmas holidays? What’s the weather like in Prague these days? Has it snowed yet?
She feeds him only with short answers, even shorter than the first time they met.
“All doing well,” she says about her family, the thought of her mom shoved at the back of her mind, something she has recently learnt to do. Her voice comes out different as well, colder, distant. She can’t help it, and keeps her arms crossed. For protection. Mikel and the world feel too close tonight. She misses being alone in a crowd, going unnoticed.
However, she feels bad for him. The date had been her idea, and yet she can’t get a grip of herself, act any nicer. Something inside her has gone missing, but she doesn’t know what exactly, and why. Is it because his eyes aren’t sparking the way they were in Zurich? Or because he doesn’t look as manly and protective as he did when he held her? He seems tired, almost dull. His jokes are less funny—or at least, she doesn’t get them—his laugh less contagious. No, it isn’t his fault. It’s me, I’m draining him, she thinks. It’s she who is as deflated as a balloon at the end of a party. Washed over by an ancient, internal tiredness she hasn’t noticed before or maybe she has been denying.
Mikel is drawing imaginary circles on the table with his second glass of wine. He gulps down the rest, and a flicker of fatigue—or is it panic?—falters in his eyes. Helena rummages through her handbag, finds the key to her hotel room, clenches it. The coldness of the iron reassuring against her skin.
“I’m sorry, I have a headache. Must be from the journey,” she rubs her temple with two fingers, “or from the different weather. I should probably get going.” She scrambles to her feet, wavering on her high heels.
“Sure,” his tone is light, but Helena reads disappointment in his eyes. Or is it relief?
She takes out her wallet, but Mikel puts his hand on her wrist, barely touching her.
“Ah, don’t worry about it.” He leaves a twenty-euro note on the table, stands up, digs his hands in his pockets. “I’ll walk you back, then.”
She shakes her head. “It’s all right, thank you.” Her voice firmer than she intended. “My hotel is just around the corner, there’s no need…”
“Are you sure?” He massages the back of his neck.
Helena nods, “Thanks.” She can’t stand this awkwardness any longer. She wriggles her toes in her shoes. She’s dying to go.
Luckily, he seems to get it. He hesitates for a split second, then shrugs, “Okay.”
They stand there, one in front of the other. Frozen. Mikel stretches out a hand toward Helena, but stops halfway and takes it back. In the end, it’s she who bends to give him a light kiss on the cheek.
“Goodbye and thank you. Take care,” she says, a squeeze in her lower abdomen, then turns and walks away. Without giving him time to answer.
She doesn’t come back to her room until late. Her feet are sore from walking in shoes she doesn’t normally wear anymore. But this doesn’t prevent her from covering what feels like most of Palma. She isn’t alone. The sense of emptiness that wrapped itself around her earlier in the evening accompanies her. Even when she takes another hot shower, she can’t rub it off. She takes it to bed. Minutes later, she gets up again to take an extra blanket from the closet. Despite Palma’s mild temperature, her teeth are chattering. She lies down, pulling the blanket up to her chin. Just before closing her eyes, she wonders how on Earth she’s ended up so far away from both her homes in Greece and the Czech Republic. Curled up with her solitude rather than the man she’s come for.
When she opens her eyes, Helena is completely awake. 6.24 in the morning. Much earlier than the time she’d set her alarm for the day before. She must be too used to waking up for work. She rubs her eyes and sits up straight. She has no desire to go back to sleep. She has a few hours before her flight—it isn’t until 2 p.m.—and feels she isn’t quite done here yet. She’ll go to the beach, as she promised to herself she would. She can’t leave without one quick peek at the sea.
She gets dressed and packs as fast as she can. She grabs a croissant on the go from the first bakery she sees. As she’s walking to the nearest bus stop, a bus passes her. 17. She recognizes its number from the brochure she’s picked up at the hotel reception. It’s going in the right direction. She makes an awkward run for it, her carry-on wheels hitting her ankles as she goes. She reaches the bus just before it pulls away. She sits by the window and tries to turn down the volume of her panting. Even though it’s Saturday, the further away they get from the city, the emptier the streets become. It must be because it’s cloudy; the sun is just starting to poke out. Or maybe it’s just too early for Palma; most people are likely still in bed, recovering either from the night before or their work week.
Getting off at the last stop, Helena finds the landscape around her almost surreal. The restaurants, supermarkets and shops have either German signs or German flags painted over their windows. Why? Is there a big German community in Mallorca? Or is Palma popular with German tourists? If so, she hasn’t noticed and can’t see any of them around now. Everything looks closed. Before reaching the beach and its promenade, she could have believed she was the only survivor of a quiet apocalypse.
Helena drags her luggage onto the sand, all the way to the sea. The only people walking on the beach are two couples who are holding hands with the same tenacity she’s clenching the handle of her carry-on.
She chooses a patch of sand all for herself, lets go of her mate of adventure and sits under a palm tree. She closes her eyes, breathes in. The scent of the sea breeze is as familiar to her as freshly brewed coffee mixed with cigarette smoke in her mother’s kitchen. The sun has pushed the clouds away and is beaming down on her. It’s warm. She takes off her jacket, then her jumper. Within a couple of minutes, she starts feeling the urge to dive into the water.
Underneath her shirt and trousers, she’s wearing a swimsuit. She’d put it on with the hopes of sunbathing. Living in the Czech Republic has thickened her skin. A little bit more warmth than usual and she’s already dreaming of summer, of Greece. However, she hasn’t expected to swim today. And apparently, neither have the few passers-by on the promenade who stare at her as she finishes undressing and tiptoes to the shore.
Helena doesn’t care. Growing up, she had a reputation for not being scared of anything. She used to think of herself as the boldest girl in Spili. No, in all of Crete.
She would plunge into the sea even when it was freezing, she was ill or just in her underwear. Even when her mother had forbidden her to, making threats they both knew she wouldn’t keep (‘in bed by eight,’ ‘no playing outside tomorrow,’ ‘no more chocolate for a week’). Nobody could keep Helena away from the water. As a teenager, the sea became a cry of freedom for her. An act of rebellion, an accusation against whatever authority (the aunts who helped her mom raise her, her teachers, her entire village) she was fighting at the time. Now that she’s an adult, vast surfaces of water hold the same fascination for her.
She stops an inch away from the sea. She’s half-hoping it will be as cold as her coworkers back in Prague have foreseen. She wants to feel something. Shake herself out of this empty shell. She wants to go back to the woman she was in Sóller. And in Zurich. Someone who could see the beauty around her and let it touch her.
She holds her breath and shuts her eyes as she dips in. She opens them again only when she’s up to her neck. Her arms and legs float around her, seemingly weightless. And her mind starts to wander.
“I don’t understand, Helena…Don’t you miss the sea? Why are you still there? Why haven’t you come back home yet?” Her cousins asked her on the phone again and again after her break up with Alexander, five years ago now. The only reason she’d moved to Prague was to follow him. He’d found a job there and had helped her get an interview for the bank she’s still working for. When they decided to part ways, about two years later, Helena’s family assumed she would just pack up and jump on the first flight to Crete.
“I do. I miss it. All the time.” It was true. During her first months in the Czech Republic, she spent most of her free time by the Moldava. She would sit on the edge of the river, put her feet in and look at the sky. Pretending to be somewhere else. At a certain point, though, she stopped going altogether; the Moldava just couldn’t compare with the Sea of Crete.
Despite missing the sea, the smell of the sun on her skin and in the air, and the slower pace of life, she had no desire to move back to Greece. Explaining to her family why she wanted to stay in the Czech Republic made her feel uneasy. All the reasons she gave them sounded shallow even to her own ears. They weren’t enough.
“I like it here, my job, the gym, my colleagues, we go out drinking almost every evening after work. And the museums, the cafés, the castle…Oh, and the lights of the city at night, you should see them. Come visit. Please.”
Every time she hung up the phone, she had to hold two hands above her stomach, as if to keep it from sliding down to her ankles. She was being selfish, she was leaving them behind. She was betraying them, as though she had sworn, they had all sworn, never to move from the place where they were born.
Upon reaching her late thirties, Helena still felt the need to justify herself to her family. The topic of her return to Crete never failed to crop back up in conversation, usually following questions like: Are you eating enough? Are you keeping warm? Aren’t you working too much? Have you met anyone interesting yet?
Only, she had even less to say now. Her reasons for staying on had run their expiry date. They’d stopped being true. She didn’t like her job that much anymore, she just got on with it, afraid she wouldn’t find anything better, especially not at her age. Her gym bag was buried at the bottom of her closet. She went out with her colleagues only on birthdays, hen parties, and baby showers. Most days, she didn’t see the city lights shimmering at night, because she was in her pyjamas well before dark.
However, the older she grew the more she’d have liked to tell someone what she’d finally started to understand about herself and her need to live abroad. But who? Who could she talk to? At home, they wouldn’t get it. They couldn’t. Her friends in Prague probably would. But she hadn’t given them a chance to.
This last month, on a dull afternoon at work or a cold evening on her sofa, she’d tried to picture what it’d feel like to open up with Mikel. Which is crazy, given how little he knows her. Why would he, of all people, understand her? He wasn’t even an expat. He’d never said anything that resonated with her or her way of living. Still, part of her seemed to believe that they shared some sort of connection and therefore he could somehow empathize with her. Until last night, anyway. Speaking to him was no longer an option now. No. The only person Helena should have talked to was her mom.
Her mother wasn’t like her cousins, uncles and aunts, and all the other relatives. She had never once asked Helena to move back. She was a quiet woman who always kept to herself, minded her own business. Never gossiped, never told people how to live their lives. When Helena had come back to Crete on the first Christmas after her breakup with Alexander, her mom had squeezed her hand and told her, “You look good. It’s doing you well, to be over there.”
There had been nights when Helena had wanted to call her mom. Open herself up as she’d never done with anyone, especially not her mom, who was as hesitant as she was when it came to talking about feelings. She would listen, though. Helena knew she would. She imagined sharing with her the real reason why, at first, she’d decided to make Prague her new home. She would tell her that in the Czech Republic she could be free and independent, making her own choices, that she could even reinvent herself. Lie about her age, marital status, sex life. Even though she didn’t have to, not there. Nobody ever asked her or, worse, demanded to know anything she hadn’t volunteered herself. It was easier to find women like her, in the city. Mostly expats, with a career, a studio flat, and a lover or two. They made her feel like another type of life, or even all types of life were possible. More than that. Even just by existing, they made her feel normal.
Helena dreamt of telling her mom that living in Prague felt less tangible, less heavy than the years she had spent in Crete. The city was an alternative dimension, a neutral space, like an airport, where most people were relatively new, starting again, coming and going. She loved being a foreigner; it was like having unwritten permission for not following the same rules as everyone else. For not belonging. Even now, even after seven years, Helena still doesn’t feel like she belongs to Prague any more than any other European city. She could pack all her life away and leave again. And it would be okay, nobody would blame her for it or tell her she couldn’t, she shouldn’t, it’s irresponsible or wrong.
Helena submerges her head in the water. Its coldness takes her breath away. She’s never told her mom how she really felt. She didn’t give her the chance to even try to understand her. Why didn’t she? She jumps back to the surface, the cool breeze slapping her cheeks. She knows why, but it seems so unimportant now that she can’t call her up anymore. Her own guilt had stood between them. Even though her mom had never complained about her being far, Helena had always believed she was committing a sin.
Just before phoning her mom, she always pictured her alone in that big house. How could she talk to her about feeling free and independent, answering to nobody but her own heart, when all her mom ever did was dedicate her life to other people’s needs and wishes, supporting her family and working on the cottage and land she’d inherited from her parents?
I’ve done worse than not calling, Helena thinks, putting a hand on the upper part of her wet swimsuit. Her breath is shallow, her lungs and rib cage crushed by an invisible corset. I stopped visiting. Before her mother’s funeral, she’d gone back to Crete for the holidays just once, two years ago. Two years! God. That last Christmas had been almost unbearable. Her relatives pitied her for not having a partner or children, she could tell. In their eyes, she was already old. In the past, she wouldn’t have cared. But that time, she was vulnerable, weakened by their questions and stares. A moment in particular stands out in her memory. Her family setting the table together for Christmas’s Eve. Everyone so synchronized with each other, as though they were all dancing to the same tune. Walking one after the other, the women putting down the dishes, the men, the cutlery. Their gestures fitting in perfectly with one another, as if they’d been practicing a choreography Helena had never seen before. All she could do was pretend to know it. She realized then that, even if she wanted to, she couldn’t move back to Greece. It was too late. She didn’t belong there. She didn’t belong to her family, culture, or country. And not belonging in Crete was unacceptable, while in the Czech Republic it wasn’t a big deal.
Throughout that last visit to Crete, her stomach had felt so tight she’d had to cut the glistening lamb, lagana bread, and other wonderful food her family kept serving her into the tiniest pieces to force them down her throat. Her appetite came back as soon as she opened the door to her apartment in Prague. She was free again. She promised herself not to go back unless she absolutely had to. A promise she’d kept far too well.
Helena pours water over her head and sighs. She has to admit that lately she’s been feeling more lonely than free. Since Alexander, she’s had a few men, but in the last couple of years, no one apart from Mikel. Maybe that’s why he had seemed to mean so much more than he did.
She glances up at the sky. If she doesn’t look at the shore, she can almost forget where she is. The sky above her head could be any sky and indeed within two, three minutes it becomes the sky over her first home. And the water caressing her now is the Sea of Crete.
The sea tightens around her, just as it has done in some of the most memorable moments of her life. When her dad had died, when she’d given her first kiss, when she’d left everything behind to follow a boyfriend who, looking back, was probably not worthy of such an effort.
Once again, Helena’s sea is there for her, it has come to find her. She feels the need to give something in return, but apparently all she can offer are her tears, which, without any warning, start to become one with the salty water.
It feels so unnatural to cry. She isn’t used to it, she doesn’t even know how to do it, not really. The corner of her eyes itch like crazy, her throat is hurting, her cheeks are burning, and her nose is running. Her whole body is rebelling against her, shouting at her, This is so, so stupid. Stop this nonsense. And she agrees. She hasn’t cried when she should have—funerals, breakups, disappointments. Why now? Still, she can’t stop. She must have been carrying around all these tears, stored behind her eyes. They are diving in the water one after the other, like marbles dropped from children’s hands. One marble because her mother died and she wasn’t there for her. One for the guilt of not having called enough, not having visited nearly enough. Another because she has finally managed to cry for her on an island which, no matter how hard she tries to pretend otherwise, is not Crete. One more marble for her old life in Greece, for a time when she used to fit in, when she used to belong. She does miss it sometimes. Especially when the ‘clouds’ are on her tail and she is tired of running.
And finally, one last marble because she has come all the way to Mallorca looking for a hug which is long gone. It isn’t Mikel’s arms I need, she thinks as she rubs her face, her skin as raw as if someone has scrubbed it clean. <em<I've never needed them. Did I ever really believe I did? What if since the start, since deciding to book that flight, I've been after something else? Something I've lost. Helena isn’t quite sure what that is. She can’t name it—calling it ‘connection’ seems so vague, so limited—but its loss weighs on her back and shoulders like another piece of luggage she didn’t know she was carrying.
When there’s nothing left to hand over to the sea, Helena walks back to the shoreline. She unpacks a towel, dries herself off and puts her clothes back on. She grabs her carry-on and leaves without a second glance at the waves. Shortly after stepping on the promenade again, she comes across a family of three heading down to the beach. They smile at her. The parents look as if they had just woken up—scruffy hair, drowsy eyes. The child is missing a few teeth, but the ones he has shine brightly in the sun.
She darts a smile back. They haven’t seen her in the sea. They have no idea what happened there. And yet she does know and has no way to forget. Her cheeks still burn and she can’t tell for sure if it is from the sun or from that primeval crying that has left her exhausted, but at same time almost content, like after exercise or sex. She can’t help but feel that here in Palma she has traded one secret for another. The only thing she is taking back to Prague is another little secret of her own.
Francesca Mauri grew up in a small town in Lombardy, Italy, where nothing ever happens. That’s probably why she got itchy feet and ended up living in nine countries, from North Macedonia to Australia. She has a Master’s Degree in Modern Philology and Literature and is a graduate of The Writer’s Studio at Simon Fraser University, Vancouver. Her writing has been published in Futura, Corriere della Sera, Natural Born Vagabond, and emerge 20: The Writer’s Studio Anthology. English is her second language and her secret weapon for letting her hair down while writing.
Such an evocative story about a woman’s inner struggle between the urge for independence and loneliness.