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Gene J. Parola
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By Gene J. Parola

“Go play with yourself,” Diti had said in careful English.
Mike smiled again in recollection. It was the only time politics had ever gotten in the way of his love life. Well, he had been hungry anyway.
Now, as he approached the restaurant he could see Nick at his station on the curb. He took the paperback from his waistband where it had been tucked earlier-after he had failed to convince Diti that she should make his last night on Cyprus a memorable one.
Diti was a native and could have her pick of the handsome tourists who were just now arriving to enjoy Cyprus’ early spring. Even at the beginning she had been only nominally interested. Then she asked about the book and politics prevented any further progress.
The novel was set against the background of the 1974 coup and the subsequent division of the island into Cyprus and Turkish sectors and was boldly documented. Mike had been trying to learn more about the trouble and the current attitudes of those who participated. But he had found few who were willing to open up such a painful period in their past-particularly to an American reporter. Diti had had no such qualms, but she brought more heat than light to the subject.
“‘It had been one of those dark moments in the Cold War when the end justified any means,’ “Mike had quoted from the book’s cover.
“Yes,” Diti had sneered. “In this case the end was a divided Cyprus, with the lives of 200,000 people permanently wrenched apart.”
The actual casualty figures Diti couldn’t quote, but she had paused to swallow the lump that rose in her throat as she talked of the youth of the island who first fought the coup plotters, then the Turkish army.
“A ploy by the CIA to dislodge the junta of Colonels in Athens,” she had hissed. “Greece!! Cyprus was sacrificed for two foreign governments!!”
Then he brought up the killing of the American ambassador by the rioting Cypriots. “They killed an innocent man who had been sacrificed, kept in ignorance, by the faltering Nixon and Ford administrations.”
She didn’t buy that either. “You Americans. You are so foolish. You have fought so many wars, yet you have not been changed by any of them. Like children playing-how you say-cowboys and Indians-you still shout ‘bang, bang you’re dead’ and expect your playmate to get up, brush himself off and play some more. Go play with yourself,” she had said, standing. He smiled at the double-entendre.
Touché,” he had said, in an affable attempt to draw her back, but she just arched an eyebrow and strode off down the beach.
Pity too, he had thought. ‘Diti’ was short for Aphrodite.
Now, he was famished. The Elkion sloshed about in his empty stomach. He had gotten so involved in the book that he had failed to have lunch and Diti had already eaten when he had bought the bottle of wine to launch that fruitless campaign. He would be early for dinner, but all Americans were. Octopus in red wine sauce-Nick’s chef made the best on the island.
Nick clucked feigned disapproval, all the while smiling and grasping Mike’s hand in his great warm paw. “And where have you been, Cowboy? I know, Ayia Napa, don’t tell me. Where the topless Swedes have arrived.” Mike’s Levis and the flat crowned straw hat he wore, gave Nick license for the cowboy tag.
He was gently pushing, pulling, guiding, leading Mike to the small sidewalk table near the door where he could watch all of tonight’s little dramas as they unfolded here on the sidewalk and in the restaurant beyond.
It had been almost a week since he had been in to eat at Nick’s. He had had dinner there the first night on the island and had enjoyed the food and the parade of tourists that had arrayed themselves for his study and amusement. He’d been back every day or two since, until the second weekend, which he had spent in Paphos at the other end of the island. The gaggle of tall topless Swedish women dotting the beach had indeed delayed his return to Larnaca. Now it was Wednesday and he was to fly out tomorrow.
“They were in Paphos this week end,” Mike managed to say when Nick released him in order to pull out the table.
Nick’s gregarious, Zorba-like romantic image had been copied from his retired father, whom Mike had seen on one of his earlier visits. These restaurants were almost all family owned. In the course of a single evening Mike had witnessed a three-generation quality control squad weave in and out of the place looking, checking, stopping by-to straighten the sign or the cloth on a sidewalk table. To kibitz. To remain a part of the business.
Nick knew Mike was a reporter, not a cowboy, yet Mike suspected that there was a palpable wish that he was. The Cypriot fascination for America had finally overpowered the suspicion and resentment that had clung for a long time after the Greek junta’s attack. The lingering division of the Cypriot nation was a constant and not gentle reminder of what many astute Islanders detected as Dr. Kissinger’s fine hand.
Nick repositioned the table after his guest was comfortably seated. Then, leaning over, ostensibly to brush away a crumb, he whispered, “Well, I know a gentleman doesn’t talk of these things, but did you lie in the lap of Aphrodite while in Paphos?” And he winked an exaggerated, macho wink.
“Yes, her name was Helen, I think.” Mike shot back with a grin.
“Impossible,” Nick said, returning the ball immediately. “That’s the name of a good Cypriot girl.” And the baritone chuckle bubbled forth as he turned to meet an approaching English couple and wooed them to his food.
He’s good, Mike thought. A real people person.
“And was she pretty? This Cypriot girl you brag of seducing?” Nick smiled down at him between potential patrons.
“Like all Cypriot women-beautiful. Brown eyed and henna haired.”
Nick smiled and moved to meet two women in their sixties who might have been twenty by the way he flattered and charmed them. He was good, Mike thought again. He was very good. He seemed to be able to read each couple at a glance, determining nationality-sometimes greeting them in their native tongue-noting a sporting interest by a t-shirt logo or a pair of boating shoes. He often commented knowledgeably on a home country or a hometown that had been volunteered by the flattered guest. He could even handle the haughty British pensioners who initially regarded his assertive effort as being crass-until they paused long enough to fall under his spell.
Sometimes, Mike thought, it bordered on the occult. How had he guessed that the Austrian couple raised horses? What made him ask the Italian about leather? The guy was good. And once he had your measure, he could get you to agree to almost anything he suggested.
The waiter brought his salad, remembering the American penchant for dining in reverse, and Mike began a mouthful with: “Now, I know gentlemen don’t talk about these things,” he beckoned the attendant Nick to lean over, the better to hear, “but how did you make out with that little American blonde last week?” He had returned to his salad as he spoke. Nick’s hand, pausing in mid reach for the paperback, caused Mike to look up quickly enough to see a shadow cross the big man’s face. Then it was gone and he casually flipped through the pages of the book.
“You mean Eleni.” It was a statement and he nodded vaguely at the tall, thin, nondescript Cypriot girl who stood guard inside at a table near the kitchen door. Mike suspected that Nick was being pressured to marry Eleni because her family was in the business too and-after all, wouldn’t it be a good idea to join two such hard-working families, eh?
“No, I don’t mean her,” Mike smiled but did not look up. “I mean the little American blonde in the tight jeans that you were so cozy with on Thursday night after you took Eleni home.”
He hadn’t realized that Nick had moved away and when he looked up the big man stood leafing through the paperback in deep concentration.
The preceding Thursday evening had been the last time Mike had eaten at Nick’s, and in his fashion, he people-watched all night-filing away images, snatches of conversation, glimpses into the lives of strangers-all he hoped to use one day when he could write for himself instead of to a deadline.
He had noticed the guy and the two American girls. They were the only other people in the place when he had arrived. Typically American, they were hungry two hours before any self-respecting European would venture into an eatery. They were sitting at a table at the left end of the bar that night. Nick had divided his charms between them and Mike, and slipped into the chair next to Eleni at the end of each circuit. Somewhere in the conversation it was revealed that the girls were artists, the guy a musician. Finally, after the girls had picked at the very sweet baklava dessert, Nick had served the complementary glasses of Commanderia himself, explaining at length that this fine Cypriot port wine was the first in the world to have a name of its own. The Americans had been duly impressed with both the quality of the wine and the quantity of attention, but departed soon after, leaving Mike alone at the sidewalk table until the other diners began to arrive an hour or so later.
It was then that Eleni had begun to fret and had asked to be taken home. Passing the greeter’s baton to his young cousin, Nick did as she asked. He returned a few minutes later to find the same rental BMW that had whisked the Americans away, again parked at the curb-a car length farther south, on Nick’s side of the road. The little blonde, alone now, was behind the wheel of the right-hand drive car and her window was down only a few inches. She had talked earnestly to Nick through the narrow gap.
Nick had been the consummate Casanova. Leaning on the car, he flattered, he cooed, he urged, he promised-but he removed his hand from the window sill regularly to greet a guest or open a door for one departing or wave good-night to another.
The car window came down by degrees and finally a be-ringed hand covered Nick’s. He talked; the hand flicked a something from his lapel. He flattered; the hand, bangles cascading, brushed a fallen curl from his forehead. He cooed, and a finger was placed against his mouth to silence it. It was withdrawn, kissed by very red lips and pressed against his again.
Then there had come the only two of her words loud enough for Mike to hear: “Midnight, then?” Nick had nodded in response and the BMW had sped into the night.
“If you’re really interested in this stuff,” Nick tossed the paperback onto the table, “I can introduce you to some of the people who were a part of it. No fiction. Real stuff.”
The easy going look had disappeared for a moment from the intrinsically happy countenance. Mike quickly calculated that Nick would have been in his early teens in 1974. Had he been a part of the hoard of callow boys that had been drawn into the whirlpool of international intrigue? Was this what Mike had looked for in vain for two weeks, hiding right here behind the hail-fellow, smiling, womanizer facade?
“She was there too,” Mike said, indicating the book’s author.
“Yes,” Nick said, pausing a moment. “But there are many stories and many did not live to tell theirs. Our best young artists were killed; our best writers also did not survive to speak for them. There are some of us who lived it who must tell the things not yet set down on paper. To right the wrongs.”
And those, thought Mike, are what I’ve been listening for.
“Great. When can we do it? My flight doesn’t leave until six tomorrow evening. If that’s too tight, I can stay on another day.” He finished his wine. “My complements to the chef. His sauce is better every time I have it.”
“It’s always better later in the week.” Nick said absently. “He makes it on Monday, so by Wednesday or Thursday the spices have blended.... Why not tonight? I’ll call some of my friends.” The sparkle had returned to his eyes. He was the gracious host again. “We’ll go up tonight when I close here. We’ll drive into a Cypriot dawn and be in the mountains for breakfast.” His smile was as broad as the dawn Mike imagined.
Could he be talking about Kapasia, Mike wondered. That was the only place east that would take four or five hours to reach. That was Turkish-held Cyprus. Why go there? How was he going to pull this off? Nick had turned on his heel to open the door for a couple wearing t-shirts advertising a resort on the Rhine.
Mike nursed his Irish Coffee. Then he nursed his Commanderia. Then he chatted gaily with the elderly English lady who recognized him from his hotel’s breakfast room.
The crowd swelled, thinned, swelled and thinned again. At 12:15 Nick’s task was over. The cousin could handle the last goodnights. He checked quickly with the cashier on the day’s receipts and scanned the schedule for tomorrow’s help. He ducked into the kitchen to see about a late delivery of some produce and when he returned he was again the perfect example of the jovial, expansive, almost stereotypical, fun-loving Greek. He was a youth anticipating a night of masculine mischief.
“Come, before we go, let me show you around.” He ushered Mike upstairs into an office where he twirled the dial of a safe to, and then past, the first three numbers of the combination, leaving the last for the cashier when he made his deposit. Then he snatched up the phone and stabbed at it from memory. The Greek-Cypriot patois conversation rattled along too fast for Mike to follow, but he gathered that the way was being paved for their visit.
He caught references to there being two in the party and to some special arrangements for either a fishing trip or fish for lunch. Mike couldn’t be sure, but it was sure to be nice. They would be there at about five if there were no delays. Before he could determine much more, his host hung up and was ushering him out the door.
“We’ll take my car,” Nick said. “One more thing before we go. Something to take with us. It’s from my private stock.” He
led the way down to the room behind the kitchen. Taking a ring of keys from his belt, he stopped in front of the door of a massive walk in refrigerator.
“This is where I keep all my prize stuff.” He winked as he removed the long-shank pad lock. “No one can get in here but me.” He swung the door open, walked into the dark, cool interior and snapped on a small lamp over a freezer chest. Opening it he said, “Take a look at this. You can’t get these anywhere on the island. I have a nephew that flies for Cyprus Airlines. He brings them in for me.” He lifted the lid just as Mike arrived at his side and bending over the deep chest, he brushed the frost from the large, clear plastic package that filled the bottom of the machine.
“Take a look,” he said again, straightening up and allowing Mike to lean over in his place. Mike bent down but his breath fogged the package again and he had to brush away the newly formed frost. Then he could see Nick’s prize clearly: The little American blonde.
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