Love Under Aegean Skies

What follows is the 1st chapter of LOVE UNDER AEGEAN SKIES, a new novel by Willard Manus. The book, which will be published later this year by Elevated Press, commences with a prologue:
April 24, 1967.

Up ahead sat a police car, parked in front of a kafeneon.
"Shit," Michael said. Manolis eased up off the gas, brought the cab to a halt and switched off its headlights. They sat in silence for a while, surrounded by darkness, staring at the police car. Finally Michael turned to Jordan, who was scrunched down in the back seat.
"What do you think? Should we turn around and go back?"
"Go back where?" Jordan asked. "I'm out of places to hide."
"He's right," Manolis said.
Keeping his headlights off, Manolis put the cab in gear and started toward the kafeneon, which sat at the bottom of an incline, lit dimly by kerosene lanterns. As they rolled down the hill, the three of them held their breath.
The police car was dark and empty.
They glided past the kafeneon, through the slumbering village, out the other side. Exhale time.
Manolis flicked his lights on and they resumed their drive over the top of the island, crossing from east to west, zigzagging through the mountains by way of narrow, dirt roads filled with rocks and pebbles that flew up and raked the underbelly of the cab like buckshot.
No one spoke as they drove through the darkness under the vast, starlit Aegean sky, dust billowing up behind them, taking one blind turn after another. They did not encounter another car, which was just as well because Manolis was driving fast, taking up the entire road as he swerved, cornered and powered down the straight stretches.
There were few villages up here, just the odd farmhouse surrounded by fields and trees. Once their headlights picked out a reclining herd of cows, guarded by a barking dog with yellow-glinting eyes.
Soon they came to an unmarked crossroads but Manolis didn't even pause to figure out the way. He knew every road, every twist and turn on the entire island of Rhodes.
As they began to descend from the mountains, they could hear the sea far down below, thudding against the shore. The road was too steep and jagged to be taken fast, but once they reached the coastal highway Manolis gunned his engine again and streaked toward the tiny village where he kept his caique.
Kamiros Skala was a natural harbor, protected from the rough seas on this side of the island by a fortunate curve of rock. A few fishermen lived here. No one was up and about at this hour. Manolis's small but sturdy caique was called Panayota, after his wife.
Michael and Jordan embraced each other. "Send a post card when you get to Istanbul," Michael said. "You know, 'wish you were here, Aunt Edna.'"
"Will do," said Jordan, managing a smile. "Thanks, Michali. I appreciate everything you've done for me."
"Never mind that, just be well and safe."
Jordan nodded and jumped aboard the caique. Manolis fired up the diesel engine, then approached Michael.
"After you cast us off, drive the cab to the edge of town and leave it there, with the keys under the seat. Then start walking, before anyone spots you."
By the time Manolis was able to clear the harbor, the first light of dawn could be seen in the eastern sky. Michael parked Manolis's cab, then started trekking down the highway.
He watched Manolis ramming his way through the angry sea and blinking his running lights as a farewell signal. Soon the caique was swallowed up by the vast darkness out there.

May 10, 1966
The cry ripped into Michael Prestopino like a sword, startling him awake. He lay on his side on the banka (sleeping platform), managing to open one eye and peer out the window. He could see a large dusty field that once upon a time had served as Lindos's main square and marketplace. Behind it were the remnants of an amphitheater cut out of a thousand-foot-high hillside crowned by a fortified acropolis and a temple to Athena, the goddess of wisdom. From the position of the sun, which was just beginning to show itself over the acropolis, he judged the time to be about six a.m. Six a.m. and his neighbor--and landlady--Ballasoula was already summoning her son Yannis at the top of her turbo-charged lungs.
Ballasoula's ungodly cry reverberated round the room, rattling the things sitting beside Michael's mattress--an empty retsina bottle and two glasses, a Gaulloise-filled ashtray, a wax-encrusted candlestick-holder. The sparrows roosting in a nearby tree came alive too, filling the air with birdsong, yet Sabine Herber slept on, lost to the dawning day. It gave Michael the chance to sit and stare at her sleek, nude body, caress it ever so lightly and lovingly.
Sabine was such a beautiful girl, by far the most beautiful he'd ever slept with. Her hair was dark and thick with a tangle of curls that pillowed her head; her skin was smooth and browned by the Greek sun; and her long, slender body had classical proportions: small, comely breasts tipped with brown nipples; a flat belly swelling into gently curving hips and buttocks; a tuft of light-brown pubic hair, which, he couldn't help noticing, glistened with the crystallized remnants of last night's orgasms.
Make that singular. He'd been the only one to come; of that he was certain. He'd tried like hell to get her off, had forced himself to hold back while giving her time to reach a climax. He'd fucked her this way and that, topways, sideways and bottomways, going slow, then fast, pumping hard, then gently, rotating his hips like a hula-hooper, trying his best, his damndest, to make her explode, experience ecstasy, release, relief, whatever you wanted to call it, but no matter what he did or said, how much he poked and prodded and undulated, he couldn't achieve his goal.
Finally he slid off her and used his tongue, his fingers, even his thumb, to try and please her. She moaned and writhed, crying out in German, English, even Greek; wrapped her arms, then her legs, around him, held on, squeezed tight, let go, squeezed again, gave him orders, moved him around, cursed him, kissed him, put all her strength into the effort, calling out his name, the name of others, her mother, father, a schwein called Heinz, but it all went for naught.
In the end Michael gave up the contest. It was the first time that he'd ever failed to satisfy a woman, but what the hell could he do, he was only mortal, so he rolled over and lay on his back, struggling to ride out the spasms of pain shooting up and down his spine. He fell asleep like that, sick with shame, hurting.
Michael eased himself down to the edge of the banka and stood up gingerly, testing his back. He'd hurt it in playing high-school football and had suffered from it ever since. It still hurt but the spasms were gone. He stood there, gazing down at Sabine again. With the sun beginning to flood into the room, she lay in a pool of light, a different kind of light, a bright gold that shone on her hair and brought out the contours of her face--the small, round chin, prominent cheekbones, long dark eyelashes, the starcluster mouth, the birthmark on her hip. What a beauty she was, and what a mess.
Michael went outside, into the courtyard of his L-shaped house, and took an outdoor shower, gasping as the cold water hit his skin, but liking the feeling, liking everything about the day--the warm sunlight, the hard-blue sky overhead, the rooster cry echoing down from the acropolis hillside, the smell of fresh-baked bread in the air. He also liked the sight of his garden with its red and purple bougainvillea, its three pomegranate trees whose fruit was just beginning to bud, its grapevine whose bright-green tendrils were clinging to an overhead trellis, making for a dappled shade.
Barefoot and naked, he picked his way across the courtyard's pebbled floor to the outhouse, feeling his spirits continue to lift, just as they did every morning here in Lindos. It may have been a remote Greek island village without electricity or running water, but there was something about it--the light, the history, the beauty--that soothed his eye everywhere he looked, gave him a feeling of wellbeing and contentment.
Even though he hated the flies that were already beginning to pester him and the fact that he was peeing into a hole in the ground, he was glad to be living here like this in the twenty-sixth year of his life. One third down and two to go, if he was lucky.
Clad in shorts, a tank-top and flip-flops, carrying a water jug, he headed out into the village, passing his youthful nemesis Yannis. The squat, scowling boy was a miniature of his mother, Ballasoula, a stocky, cross-eyed crone in black. Yannis had finally heeded her cries and was returning home from the hillside where he had been feeding the family chickens and donkeys.
Michael scowled at Yannis as they crossed paths, but said nothing. His other neighbor, Marietta, waved to him from her outdoor oven. She made bread once a week: dark, coarse bread with a crust that tasted of the myrtle branches she added to the flames for flavor. She allowed him to pay for a loaf, but not for the things he occasionally brought to her for baking--trays of meat and potatoes, the odd eggplant or zucchini dish.
"Deka lefta," the greyhaired, slightly-stooped woman said, with a smile. The bread would be ready in ten minutes.
Michael was hoping, as always, to catch a glimpse of her two teenaged daughters, whose pellucid skin, black hair and violet eyes reminded him of the young Elizabeth Taylor. Unfortunately, they were nowhere in sight.
Disappointed, he passed Dimitris's kafeneon, better known as The Old Man's Cafe. At this hour, the only ones sitting on the porch were fishermen stoking up on black coffee before heading out to sea. Michael waved and tossed them a kali mera.
"Kali mera, Michali," came back assorted voices. "Good morning, Michael."
By the time he reached the plateia, the main square, several visiting farmers had set out their goods; he bought half a kilo of tomatoes, a couple of huge cucumbers and some ripe apricots. Then he filled his water jug from the spring and headed back home, arriving at Marietta's just in time for the bread, which was so hot he had to wrap it in his shirt. Her daughters were up and giggled endearingly at the sight of his bare chest and belly.
Michael went to his kitchen and washed the tomatoes and cucumbers before slicing them up into a salad. From a screened box dangling from the ceiling, he pulled out a slab of feta cheese which had been wrapped in wet burlap. Cutting off a few hunks, he added them to the salad, garnished them with sea salt, pepper and oregano. From the same screened box, which had to be hoisted on a line to protect against ants and rodents, he drew out a pot of honey and a can of NouNou condensed milk.
He made instant coffee on his gazziera, a tiny kerosene cooker, and brought the breakfast tray to the bedroom, where Sabine had been awakened, as he knew she would, by the fiery sunlight and by the braying of a nearby donkey.
Living in Lindos was like living in a menagerie; besides the donkeys and birds there were roosters that raised a cacophony around the clock, cicadas that made a racket at midday, owls croaking at night.
This was the closest that Michael, a city boy, had ever come to nature. Though he sometimes resented these creatures for wrecking his sleep, he felt kindly toward them today, if only because Sabine was sitting up and waiting for him as he entered the bedroom.
He made a low bow and attempted an impersonation of the actor Erich von Stroheim. "Gut morgen, hier ist frustack for der little princess."
"Nei," she said disbelievingly. "I never had breakfast in bed before."
Michael switched from von Stroheim to Humphrey Bogart.
"Stick wit' me, kid, and yiz'll be eatin' breakfast in bed fer the rest of yer life."
Sabine managed to squeeze out a smile.
"You are something," she said. "Always making with the jokes."
They had breakfast while sitting and facing each other. Michael had peeled his shorts off to join her in her nakedness. It all seemed natural and right, sitting here disrobed in the morning sunlight, opposite an amphitheatre where Aristophanes and Sophocles had once been performed, listening to the village begin to come alive, move to a familiar pace and rhythm, one that stretched back in time for thousands and thousands of years. And here they were, a Bronx boy and a German girl, caught up in the flux of things, the history and timelessness of it all.
"How do you feel about Lindos?" he asked. "Are you as crazy about it as I am?"
"I wish I were," Sabine said. "But I have never really liked any place I've lived."
"What about Hamburg?"
"Hamburg," she said, making a face.
"It's home, isn't it?"
"I was born there. And my parents are still there. That's about all I can say for it."
"How do they feel about you living in Greece?"
"They hate the idea. They wish I'd stayed in university, kept studying to be a lawyer."
"What made you drop out?"
"It all seemed so stupid and boring."
"What would you like to do?"
"I don't know."
"You could become a model. You have the right looks for it."
"That's even worse than being a lawyer, having to smirk like a moron and prance around in ridiculous clothes all day long."
"Well, while you're sorting out your life, why don't you move in with me?"
"I can't. You know that."
"You still feel attached to Leif, even after last night?"
She lowered her dove-grey eyes and stared down at her coffee cup, gripping it in her hands. She still smelled of last night's lovemaking.
He wanted to ask what she saw in that drunken, loutish Swede, but thought better of it. Women did not appreciate it when you attacked their paramours, if only because it reflected badly on all their other actions in life.
"Sabine, can I ask you something?"
She looked up at him.
"Does Leif make you come? Is that why you stay with him--because he can do something to you that I can't?"
"I enjoyed last night," she said.
"But you're still going back to him."
She shrugged her shoulders. "I came to Lindos with him."
"But you're not married to him. You're free to do what you please."
She muttered something in German. Then, after a sip of coffee, "I can't just walk out on him like that."
"Why not? Last night you came to Papoose's party with him, but you left with me."
It helped of course that Leif had got drunk-- stinking, falling-down drunk. The disgusted Sabine had approached Michael, asked him to dance with her. One dance led to another and another. Leif didn't say a word, just sat in a stupor. He didn't even complain when Michael announced that he was taking Sabine home with him.
Maybe he was happy to get rid of her. If true, Michael couldn't understand why. Not only was Sabine beautiful, she was smart, able to talk about books and films and life in a knowing way. Such sophistication was unusual in someone so young, but then again she had obviously been well educated. She'd told Michael that she came from a wealthy family, one that could easily afford to send her to a top German university. But then she dropped out and went to London instead, to work as an au pair and improve her English.
That didn't last long either. She took off with a girlfriend and started hitching around Europe--France, Holland, Scandinavia. Which is where she'd met Leif, who persuaded her to go to Greece with him. Supposedly he had some kind of arts grant from the Swedish government, but Michael was willing to bet he was mostly living off her. No arts grant could pay for the amount of alcohol he consumed every day of the week.
"I've never been able to have an orgasm," Sabine said suddenly.
That was another thing he liked about her, her candor. There weren't many women who could--or would--admit to such a thing.
"I'd like to give you your first one. Would you let me try again?"
She shook her head, making her hair fall around her face.
"Forget it. I'm too fokked up by the pills I take."
"What pills?"
"How long have you been on them?"
"Just about all my life. They keep me stable, but also make it impossible for me to experience an orgasm."
"You almost did last night. I could feel it."
"It's always like that. I get close, so close, but..."
"I want to make you come. I want to make you happy."
"I'll never be happy," she said, matter-of-factly.
"That's bullshit. That's just German weltschmerz talking. I'll cure you of it once and for all."
"You really think you're something special, don't you. Some kind of wizard."
"What's special is my desire for you. I'm crazy about you, dammit!"
To prove it, he pushed the tray away, slid across the mattress, and took her into his arms. She didn't resist, so he kissed her, again and again, and soon they began to make love. No extended foreplay this time. One thrust and he was inside her and they were locked in each other's arms, rocking and rolling. It was strong, it was incredibly good, and she kept crying out, just as she had last night, but in the midst of it, in the throes of all that passion, Michael knew that no matter what he did, it wasn't going to work; he wasn't going to ring her bell.
It didn't stop him from trying, though. He kept pumping away like an oil-rig, desperate to hit the G spot, take the A train, make her explode with pleasure and ecstasy. But all he got for his trouble was another backache and the bilious taste of defeat.