Brenda Wilson Wooley, Pencil Fingers
He sashayed into my life without warning and ran away with my heart. “Konstantas Dimitri Papadopoulos,” he laughed, “But you can call me ‘Costa.’”
We met at my best friend’s wedding. I was maid of honor; he, best man. Slim and graceful, with startling black hair, his high cheekbones and arched Roman nose put me in mind of a tall, slim Al Pacino. Although his true love was art, he made his living as a chef at an upscale Manhattan eatery. He had recently moved back home to the Detroit suburb of Bloomfield Hills to pursue his dream.
“It’s now or never; I’m giving myself one more chance to make it with my art,” he said, “If not, I guess I’ll be forced to give it up.”
Costa was electrifying, impulsive, and dangerous; a free spirit, one of a kind. The most exciting man I had ever met. It was only after we married that I realized there were two sides to him. Many sides, really. But the good times were so enchanting that I anxiously awaited them. He encouraged things I would never have done before he came along, singing our favorite Air Supply song, “All Out of Love” in a packed Karaoke bar, running naked in the rain, smoking pot, flipping the bird to drivers who cut me off on Telegraph Road. And trading obscenities with him during our screaming fights.
He painted my portrait as I lay naked on our bed, his worn bomber jacket draped across my thighs. He taught me Greek dances as the musicians strummed their mandolins in the dark, cozy bars down in Greek Town. He took me to Reggie’s, where we danced the night away to the old Motown sound, and to Flood’s Bar & Grill, where we dined on soul food and listened to smooth jazz.
But the best times were our nights at home. And the best of them all was the rainy night of our last wedding anniversary. He zipped around the kitchen, preparing Spanakopita, Dolmathakia; Moussaka and Baklava, yelling “Opa!” as he lit the flame, squeezed lemon juice and a smattering of Cognac over the sizzling Kefalotere cheese, serving it all with the pizzazz of the superb chef that he was.
Costa dined like he made love, slowly, savoring each course, a look of pure joy on his face. “What a delight,” he said, taking sensuous bites of the filo-layered spinach pie, tangy stuffed grape leaves, creamy Moussaka. Washing it down with cheap red wine.
“More Dom Perignon, madam?” he said, bowing gracefully.
Everything about him was graceful: his long, slim legs whirling me around the dance floor; his flowing arms, pretending to direct an orchestra when he was tipsy from too many Rusty Nails; his artistic fingers, so long that friends called him “pencil fingers.”
We planned our future as we smoked a joint, legs entwined on our old tattered sofa. “You’re the next Eudora Welty,” he said, tracing my eyebrow with one long, tapered finger. “You’re the next Jackson Pollock,” I said, running my fingers through his black, silky hair.
Later, his gold-brown eyes held mine as we made love to the sound of the rain falling softly on the eaves.
But, like flipping a switch, things always changed.
“Why are you ruining it all?” I cried.
We had just arrived home from visiting an Air Force buddy who had served with him in Vietnam. We had enjoyed a lovely evening with Mark and his wife Cindy. Until Costa and Mark closeted themselves in the den with a bottle of Ouzo. Cindy and I sat in the living room, trying to ignore their talk about “Nam,” the Viet Cong, “jarheads,” babies with bombs strapped to their diapers and whores with razor blades in their vaginas. Subjects which had become all too familiar to me.
“You don’t understand, Sarah, you can’t possibly understand,” he said, “I’ve fucking murdered men, women and children. Babies, god damn it, tiny, innocent babies!”
I held him in my arms until he fell asleep. And I lay awake the rest of the night.
“I promise that will never happen again, sweetheart,” he said the next morning, taking a sip of tomato juice mixed with hot sauce, his cure for a hangover.
“You need help.”
“How many times have I told you, I’m not going to a god damned shrink? They don’t understand. Nobody understands!”
The nightmares began coming more often, the night sweats and flailing, scrambling for cover. “Gooks!” he screamed, “Look! They’re right there in the bushes! Fuck! Watch out! No, no, no!”
He clung to me when I awakened him, thin body slick with perspiration, hands shaking as he lit one Marlboro after another. He never slept after the nightmares. Not that he slept much anyway.
He began spending more time away from home, obsessing about Vietnam, painting less and less, fits of anger, fists through doors. And his infidelities.
“Give me another chance, my love,” he said, gathering me in his arms the mornings after, “Please.”
And I did. Time after time. But I felt I was hanging by a thread at the peak of a cliff, slipping toward the swirling abyss below.
And, as it turned out, I was.
It was around three o’clock on a freezing February morning when I received the call. I don’t remember getting dressed or even leaving the house; I suddenly found myself speeding down 13 Mile Road, sleet spitting at the windshield. And when I arrived at Beaumont Hospital, all I could see was a clutch of people in white, all staring at me.
As the doctor moved toward me, a thin veil descended over my vision, dim and moving, shifting and blending, mind numb, body frozen, thoughts fading in, fading out. He spoke the words in a soft, gentle voice, the sounds around me receding; muffled, like underwater. But they struck with the force of a sledgehammer.
“No!” I heard myself cry out through the haze, “No!”
I waited two long weeks before I let them take him off life support. Thick, heavy snowflakes drifted past the window that cold, gray morning as I kissed his parched lips, touched his smooth, familiar face, caressing his hands and committing to memory his long, pencil fingers.
I am no longer the woman Costa knew, nor am I the woman my family and friends know. She is boxed up; put away, along with his cards and gifts, pictures, the painting of me with his bomber jacket draped across my thighs, and the tiny gold locket in which I placed a lock of his black, silky hair.
There are times, though, when the faint strings of a mandolin drift through a soft summer night, or I hear Air Supply’s “All Out of Love,” or a Greek waiter yells “Opa!” and I am cuddling with Costa on our tattered sofa, his gold-brown eyes holding mine as we make love to the sound of the rain falling softly on the eaves.
©Brenda Wilson Wooley
photo © Stratos Fountoulis, «Hoeilaart», 2011
Brenda Wilson Wooley’s work has appeared in more than forty-five publications in the United States and around the world, including The Birmingham Arts Journal, Kentucky Monthly Magazine, Barely South Review and Looking Back Magazine. She lives in Paducah, Kentucky, where she is working on a novel.