The portrait of a dreamgirl

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When I was working in Naxos, as a barman, I heard many stories about love. Not accidentally, I wanted it. When I met someone and he chilled out, after the second or third drink, I would ask him if he had any love story to tell me from the country he came from.

I was collecting material, being a good and diligent writer who exposes the others’ innermost thoughts and feelings.

They were asking for it, too. Every man needs to recount a nice story. Perhaps we’re nothing else but animals telling stories.

Do you know what they say in Hollywood? Every good story has to do with a girl.

The story you’re about to read is the one of Dinos and a dreamy girl.

~~{}~~

Dinos was a physics teacher. He was thirty years old and still unappointed. He was living with his mother and he worked in language schools. He was as phlegmatic as it got, to the point where the entire island could submerge and he would carry on drinking his beer, making but a lukewarm remark, like: “It took longer for the Titanic to sink.”

I had a notion that behind his dry look, oceans of feelings were concealed. But he was keeping it to himself. Always unruffled, reticent, frugal. He always drank two beers and refused the third I meant to stand him.

Dry, yes, that was the impression he gave. As if he was raised in the Atacama of feelings. If you don’t know what Atacama is, browse for “the-most-dry-desert-of-the-Earth”.

But sometimes people do things that astound. Mainly themselves.

~~{}~~

One afternoon, as I was tidying up the glasses, I saw him coming looking aghast. I thought of something bad, his mother could be dead or a tsunami had occurred.

Once he was close enough, I could tell his gaze wasn’t mournful or scared but rather clairvoyant, as if he was stoned by ruthless fairies.

-Give me a drink, he said and as I was bending down to the refrigerator to get his beer he shouted: No, no! Something stronger.

He drank yellow tequila on the rocks and I could not believe my eyes.

-I saw her, he said at some point.
-Yes. Good. I’m happy for you. But…Saying that you saw her? You mean…?
-The most beautiful girl in the world.
-That’s good. Where did you see her?
-In my dream.

He said this with the countenance of absolute happiness, expecting from me…I don’t know. To clap maybe?

If it was someone else who had accustomed me to similar statements, perhaps I would do it. But it was the phlegmatic and dry Dinos.

I was reduced to swiveling my eyes back and forth, like a pendulum, for a few seconds, or maybe for just one or two, I don’t know. But I remember, as if it was a movie, that I was looking once into Dinos’ face and once across to the ice cream shop.

I came to my senses when he started talking.

-It wasn’t just a dream. She was there, before me, alive. I remember every single detail of her face, every freckle, each yellow tinge in her blue iris. She wore a dress with suspenders. What’s their name?
-Suspender dress?
-She has white skin, transparent, almost transparent, you could see the vessels underneath. And red hair. Long hair. Her nails unpainted, like a little girl. I guess she bites them.

He laughed and I smiled in return-and turned my back on him. I was supposed to fix a drink (back then I used to drink gin and tonic and I liked to have it in the refrigerator). But I wanted to think through how I should behave. Should I take part in his delusion?

I don’t know why, perhaps I had foreseen the future, but I opted to be honest.

-Do you know her? I asked him.
-She’s a part of me, said Dinos.
-No, I mean…Have you ever seen her? Somewhere. Apart from the dream. Have you seen her on the street, the TV, in a picture of a book…

Dinos wasn’t listening to me.

-I must capture her face, he soliloquized.
-If you could draw..but you didn’t tell me-
-I can’t draw a straight line.
-Lines are useful for buildings, not for humans or faces. There are no straight lines in nature.
-No. I can’t do it. It would be…sacrilege.
-You could sit down and write all of her features, exactly as you remember them and you could send the text to a painter and he could draw it.
-This is madness!

“Finding your dream girl in your dream is perfectly normal” I thought but I didn’t come out with it. It was wise. Because now, it stands to reason. Where else could you find her?

-This is madness. Where could I find an illustrator? asked Dinos.

The idea occurred to both of us simultaneously. Down on the beach there were countless illustrators doing portraitures, ten euros per head.

But I thought of Dinos writing an extensive text and giving it to the illustrators so everyone could picture what he saw in their mind’s eye.

Dinos was much more realistic. He paid for his drink and made for the beach.

~~{}~~

He set out to watch all of the itinerants. He picked out the one who was closer to his style.

-I’d like you to make me a portrait, he told her.
-Sit down.
-Not mine.
-Do you have a picture?
-No.
-Then how…
-I’ll tell you. I’ll describe her to you.

The illustrator followed his instructions. The eyes should be closer to each other, the nose a tad more round, the cheeks less puffed, the lips should be orange, the hair a brighter red, as if in flames.

Before long the illustrator was bent out of shape. Dinos gave her fifty euros in hand to dismiss the other clients.

Three hours later, fifty euros more, it was almost midnight. Dinos abandoned trying. The girl on canvas was astonishingly beautiful. It was so expressive, so vivid, that the illustrator told him to take his money back and she would keep the sketch.

He went to another street painter, a man this time. The outcome, sooner now, was just as dazzling, but it wasn’t the girl Dinos had dreamt of. It wasn’t up to the mark.

As he was coming back to the Garden, gutted, he stopped at a kiosk to buy cigarettes.

He had never smoked before. His father was an avid smoker. When Dinos was ten years old, his father told him he would nip out to buy cigarettes. That’s what he said.

He kissed the boy on the forehead with inordinate warmth. And he was never seen again.

Dinos had linked smoking with abandonment. And grief.

~~{}~~

And he was standing there, three people in the queue, to buy cigarettes to smoke, when he saw Chief.

His real name was something else, but it escapes me now. They called him Chief because he looked like an Indian. He was tall and skinny, naturally smooth-chested with long straight black hair.

Actually he was Serbian. As Indian as Macedonians could be Slavs.

Every summer Chief would set up his street art there exactly, next to Lambros’ kiosk. Every single winter he went to India, and stayed in a small village high up in Kashmir, maybe in Tibet too, a rich Serbian painter – 500 Euros in his pocket.

Chief’s art was something different from painting. He made the profile of his model by paper cutting, like shadow theatre puppets. The primitive shadow theatre, the one that originated from Kashmir’s plateaus: Black paper and a white gap, the cut.

~~

Dinos left the queue, the cigarettes and grief. We went to Chief and talked to him about the girl he had dreamt of. He wasn’t surprised. He had heard and seen weirder things on his trips– both real and unreal.

He let Dinos talk and then asked about things irrelevant to the dream but relevant to the dreamer. He touched him, he breathed on his ears. Then he asked him to do something even funnier: to take off his shoes.

Chief never wore shoes in Naxos. He was the barefoot Indian, whimsical, with hard soles.

Dinos obeyed, indifferent to the onlookers. Then, following Chief’s instructions, pressed his soles together with those of the painter.

Chief shut his eyes for a moment. Then he got up, took his scissors and paper and began cutting.

When he had finished he handed it to Dinos. He told him he didn’t want any money. He kept the small figure in his hands and he knew it was the profile of the girl he had dreamt of.

~~{}~~

-It’s her, he told me when he came back to the Garden.

And he showed me the shadow theatre figure.

-The rest? I asked him pointing at the portraitures he carried in his hands.
-No, no, it’s her.

And he placed the profile on the bar.

~~{}~~

For a couple of days he didn’t show up. The third there he was. And he was phlegmatic, just like I always knew him.

-Are you disappointed? I asked him when we were left alone.
-About what?
-The girl, I told him. In the dream.
-Why should I be disappointed about her?
-That she doesn’t exist…I mean, that you didn’t see her. That you didn’t find her.
-She exists. And I will find her. It’s certain that I will find her.

I said nothing more.

~~{}~~

Not a month after Dinos’ dream and it was a night when three Italians were the last customers. I didn’t have time to take a look at them, it was August and I was making a cocktail a minute. A robot of seasonal occupation.

When we slacked off a bit I raised my eyes to look at the customers at their tables.

And there, at the table with the three Italians, I saw the girl that Dinos had dreamt of in profile.

If you think of it rationally, there is no way I would see in reality the girl that someone else had dreamt of. But it was her, without a doubt.

I was so sure that I went over and talked to her. She didn’t speak any English and I didn’t speak any Italian, we communicated with gestures and a translator.

I told her that there was a man who had seen her in his dream. She thought that I was flirting with her. I asked her to come to the Garden the next day. She said that she would leave the following morning. She would go to Santorini for three days and then back to Florence. And she began to bite her nails.

I asked for her number, an address. She gave a laugh and I saw her veins pulsing beneath her transparent skin.

-Look for Beatrice, she told me.
-It’s not about me. Believe me.
-Just come. If you look me up and ask for me up the river, you will find me.

Her orange lips, the yellow tinge in her blue iris, the white skin, the red hair and the way she talked sent shivers down my spine. As if I were the one who had dreamt of her.

~~{}~~

When I saw Dinos again, I told him nothing about Beatrice. In autumn I went to Florence – perhaps I stole his dream. But that’s another story.

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Translated by Alexandros Mantas
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Edited by Jackie Pert