Learning to ride, falling down, getting back on
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Long ago, in his twenties, he had been something of a Romeo. He met girls at his job in the shoe department of Mervyn’s in Denver, Colorado. After he’d knelt in front of them and squeezed to feel the bones of their feet through the thin leather, it was no trouble at all to ask the girls for their phone numbers at the cash register. He went to church every Sunday and met girls there, too. Even better, he would stroll across the college campus looking for pretty faces. Some girls showed him their engagement rings, said they had a steady guy, or just told him to get lost. He didn’t mind. Sometimes he struck up a conversation even after he had already spotted the diamond ring. He just liked talking to girls.
He did more than talk, but not much more. Those were innocent times. A date consisted of meeting at a soda fountain or maybe riding the bus to see a movie at the Oriental. A walk to her door. A few chaste kisses. An early good night. College girls had dorm curfews. Working girls had parents or roommates who expected them home by ten.
That was all right with him. He thought about sex as much as any young man, but he was a gentleman and would have been ashamed to get a girl in trouble. Besides, his biggest thrill was meeting someone new. Three or four times a day, at least, he would see a girl and just be unable to stop looking at her. Hello, gorgeous! he would think. If he had two dates in the same day — one in the afternoon and another in the evening, after he had left the first girl at her door — it wasn’t because he was inconstant. He was, in fact, constantly enchanted.
His life changed once he had saved enough to buy a car, a used Bel Aire. Then he could take girls to drive-in movies or to park by Sloan’s Lake to watch the stars. He grew serious about one of the girls. In a year he was married and had a son. A year after that he was selling cars instead of shoes.
He wasn’t unhappy, but he also didn’t stop noticing other women. His wife said it embarrassed her, the way he stared. So he did his best to change. If he caught himself admiring another woman, he would deliberately turn away and say the Lord’s Prayer under his breath. By the time he was thirty, he had cured himself of his old habits.
Through the decades that followed, he was steady. He worked hard, but never on Sundays. He bought a bigger house. The cars in the driveway were always new. He didn’t think he was unhappy. He didn’t think about happiness at all. He had responsibilities.
At some point, he broke his own rule and started working on Sundays. There was college to save for. His wife could take the kids to church. By the time he was fifty-five, he had put two sons and a daughter through college. That same year, cancer took his wife. It was that sudden.
The house was silent as only an empty house can be. Coming home from work, he would turn on the television even before he had his coat off, just to fill the room with voices. He’d make himself dinner in the microwave, then watch medical dramas.
“Dad,” said his eldest on the telephone, “it’s been three years. You should get out. You should meet someone.”
“By ‘someone,’ you mean a woman.”
“You should travel, anyway. You have plenty of years ahead of you. See some sights! What good does it do you to sit around moping?”
He went to Greece because the travel agent said it was a bargain. On the flight over, he read magazine articles about the first signs of stroke and the best diets for beating cancer. He looked at his Greek phrase book. He practiced saying, “I need a doctor,” in Greek.
The resort hotel was full of Dutch and French tourists. He ate breakfast, lunch, and dinner in the dining room alone, listening to conversations in languages he didn’t know. He walked around the pool once or twice in his street clothes. Women of all ages sunbathed topless, but it made no impression on him. He went down to the beach and sat under an umbrella for a while, watching the ferries move along the horizon. By breakfast on the third day he was already tired of the food they served.
He rented a car and drove away from the water, through olive groves and past fields of artichokes. Finally he came to a village, where he parked the car and walked. He didn’t know he was looking for anything until he found the church. He stood in the doorway. While his eyes adjusted to the dim light, he felt awkward and wondered if he should cross himself. Near the door, two old women sat with a box of tapers, speaking in low voices. He put some coins in a plate, and they gave him a candle.
It wasn’t a big church, but it was crowded with icons. They had even been painted onto the plaster. Everywhere he looked — the concave ceiling, the arches, the walls — Christ and perhaps a hundred saints returned his gaze. They were serene, comforting. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d felt such awe in the face of beauty.
He lit his candle and for a while stood watching it burn. Then he said goodbye to the women by the door and drove out of the village, putting more distance between himself and the resort. Finally he came to the opposite side of the island, a rocky stretch of coast where the only buildings were hardly more than shacks.
His son had been right to tell him to take a trip. He felt as if he had been asleep a long, long time.
After driving several kilometers of empty road, he came upon a bright yellow building with a weathered sign that said, in Greek, “Taverna.” He sat at an outside table in the shade. The menu was all in Greek, and the girl who’d brought it couldn’t understand his questions. She gestured for him to follow her into the little kitchen. There he met a middle-aged woman who might have been the girl’s mother. The two women talked — about him, he guessed. Then the mother called out. A man’s voice answered, and a white-haired fellow appeared with a dripping tray of fish on ice. They gestured for him to choose one.
The fish was served with fresh lemons, and he ordered a bottle of Coca-Cola, which was the same in Greek as in English. He ate the fish slowly, both because it had bones and because he wanted to savor it.
A car stopped, and a trio of young female tourists got out, jabbering away in Russian, or maybe Polish. One of the women happened to look his way. He stopped chewing. Wow! he thought. She turned back to her companions, but he couldn’t take his eyes from her. Such delicate features. He wondered what her hair smelled like. Then the serving girl appeared with menus for them, and she, too, was beautiful. How had he missed it before? Her features were not delicate like the Slavic girl’s. She was darker, the lines of her face more dramatic. But she was no less beautiful.
He had forgotten what it was like to really see young women, to drink in their beauty.
All of the Slavic women were dazzling. He looked from one to the next, amazed and full of longing. It seemed they spoke no Greek, and the girl with the menus wasn’t having any success in getting them to follow her back into the kitchen. He did his best to politely look away anytime one of the women caught him staring, but he couldn’t help himself. He stared.
The middle-aged mother came out. She was beautiful, too! He wanted to kiss the wrinkles around her eyes. Behind her came the white-haired man, bearing the tray of fish, and . . . Oh, my. The old fisherman was stunning. What would it be like to touch the sunburned skin of the man’s face? A golden light surrounded all of them. They were all so beautiful, he wanted to gather them in his arms, every one.
He blinked. He wiped his eyes with a napkin. He was filled with joy. And fear. He tried to think back to the article he had read describing the first signs of a stroke. And if he was having a stroke, what was that phrase in Greek that means “I need a doctor”? He couldn’t remember. Every time he tried to recall it, all he could think was Hello, gorgeous!
Bruce Holland Rogers
Bruce Holland Rogers’s “Hello, Gorgeous!” [April 2006] is a beautiful story of how youth’s exuberance turns to adulthood’s dull monotony, then back to long-forgotten exuberance. For days I smiled whenever I thought of it.