Beyond Wonderland

by Paul Jump

It was when we arrived out of breath, soaked with sweat, at the bus stop only to see the back end of the number 73 disappearing into the intense heat haze that we really began to lose our tempers.

“Oh, fucking hell!” cried Eleni, above the chinking of the bottles in her bag as she dropped it into the gutter in frustration.

“It seems only fair to question whether Odysseus would ever have made it back to Ithaca if he’d had to rely on the MBTA,” I murmured, waving my hand with furious vigour in front of my face to dispel the cloud of diesel that still lingered in the heavy, lifeless air.

“It went two minutes early!” exclaimed Eleni, her nostrils flaring with indignation as she glared at her watch. “When did you ever hear of a bus being early in Boston?”

“The worst thing is that the driver must have been able to see the train arriving in the station and deliberately ignored it.”

I squinted back towards the subway station marooned in the midst of a vast expanse of shimmering concrete which must have been replete with commuters’ cars during the week but which, on this sleepy Sunday in the dog days of the New England summer, was almost completely bare.

“It’s just ridiculous,” resumed Eleni, confirming the perfect visibility of the blue and white train which had conveyed us – if conveyed is not too grand a word for such an achingly slow, sweaty, overcrowded journey - from Government Center. “How can the richest country in the world have such a fucking joke of a public transport system? Even Greece does better than this!”

“Maybe there’s another one soon,” I suggested, raising my voice above the mounting din of the jumbo jet that was looming bigger and unnervingly bigger in the brilliant blue sky above our heads, its wheels already lowered for its landing at Logan Airport, just six subway stops back towards Boston.

Alas, however, from what I could make out through the Pollackesque chaos of knife scratches and cigarette burns inflicted by bored passengers on the timetable’s plastic screen, there was nothing scheduled to arrive for a whole hour.

“We’ve got to get out of this country or I’m going to become a suicide bomber,” hissed Eleni, scowling like Nemesis herself in the direction of the omnipresent skyscrapers of the financial district, looming strangely purple in the hazy distance

“Well, at least it has warmed up a bit since we were last here,” I remarked, sinking down onto the kerb after a pause, ignoring what I excused as her typically Mediterranean intemperance. “Can you imagine waiting here for an hour in January?”

Eleni’s glare clouded over somewhat as she cast her mind back to those dark, bitter weeks before she had received her first paycheque from Harvard Medical School, whose offer of a prestigious postdoctoral fellowship had prompted us to make the enormously irksome, scarcely relished move across the Atlantic. God, what a hard time that had been! We had even resorted to stealing from our local supermarket, partly out of sheer indignation at Corporate America, whose realtors, hardware stores and utility companies had unexpectedly wiped out our entire savings in one manic three-day period, but mostly out of sheer necessity. Even the single dollar it cost to travel to this northern tip of the blue subway line had seemed a significant expense back then - but it just hadn’t born thinking about the be shut up all day in our tiny apartment, still cluttered with half-emptied boxes and half-finished furniture, while the winter sun shone so crisply. After all, such a fine day was rare enough even in the summer in Oxford, at whose preposterous university, still proudly marooned in the era of Lewis Carroll, I had met Eleni four years previously. Besides, how could a couple of bewildered Alices in this surreal new England possibly resist an planning their first excursion to a station intriguingly called Wonderland?

“It’s hard to believe this is the same placed, isn’t it?” I continued, peering at the ramshackle old fairground beyond the car park, which had turned out to be the distinctly underwhelming source of that name. “Having such distinct seasons is like moving to a different country every three months. Don’t you think?”

“Fuck moving to a new country every three months,” asserted Eleni, with an ardent shake of the head. “I’d rather just live permanently in Zakynthos. And fuck waiting in this desolate shit hole for another hour. I demand the beach now!”

She kicked the kerb with her sandaled foot, crying out at the inevitable consequences for her unprotected toe. I chortled at the time-honoured slapstick of her performance, but God knew I shared her frustration with the situation. Forgetting to set our alarm the previous night, we hadn’t even woken up until around midday. Then it had taken us almost an hour and a half to complete the two subway journeys necessary to get to this point. And now, after missing the three o’clock bus, it seemed that we wouldn’t reach our destination until some time after four: over four hours late.

“Well, there’s the beach over there,” I suggested, gesturing half-heartedly at the concrete wall beyond the main road that hid the ocean from view. “We could wait there, I suppose…”

“No way!” declared Eleni, vehemently. “It’s disgusting! You saw it last time.”

And, sure enough, I recalled very clearly that it had been the assortment of condoms, tampons and plastic bottles littering the snow-flecked sand, as much as the lacerating force-7 sweeping unobstructed down the coast from the Canadian tundra, that had driven us back into the station before the train that had brought us had even begun its return journey.

“But do you really think the beach will be that much better at Pete’s?” I asked, sceptically. “He can’t live that far out of town, surely.”

Pete Mulligan was a senior postdoctoral fellow in the lab on the opposite side of the corridor from Eleni’s, whose frequent boasts of living in a house right next to the beach had prompted a popular clamour for him to host a barbecue: a clamour to which he had happily bowed.

“He said the water is very clean where he lives,” shrugged Eleni.

“Well, he would tell you that, wouldn’t he? He’s probably been masturbating for weeks over the prospect of seeing you in a wet bikini!”

This, after all, was the man who, just a few weeks previously, had approached Eleni one lunchtime as she had lain on the quadrangle lawn in her summer dress and called her a shameless siren for thus tempting men with her legs. Then, when she had protested that she was merely trying to make the most of the sunshine, he had asserted that, in America, any woman who didn’t wear a wedding ring was a temptress. Of course, he had known perfectly well that she was married to me, but he had evidently mistaken her scorn of jewellery for a lack of conjugal commitment.

“Don’t be disgusting,” chided Eleni, though serious censure was conspicuous by its absence from her tone.

“You know he has, Eleni. You said yourself that he only talks to your cleavage.”

“No, I said he only talks to Blanca’s cleavage,” she corrected, with a sly grin. “He prefers my legs. He told Blanca the other week that she has the best tits on the third floor, but that I have the best legs…”

“Did he really say that?” I asked, laughing with relished incredulity.

“Apparently. Doug was there too - although Ulrike says he once told her that she has the best legs in the whole medical school…”

“That was before he met you, of course,”

“I’m not sure…”

“Of course it was!”

I leaned forward and gave her nearest thigh a reassuring squeeze, reciprocating her giggle as she leapt away before I could reach up any higher. After all, it was very hard to take Pete’s lewd comments wholly seriously when they were dished out so indiscriminately.

Indeed, by all accounts there was scarcely a single European female to whom he had not made some suggestive comment or other. He was apparently labouring under the blissful delusion that Europe was a continent of free lovers, for whose inhabitants sexual encounters were as casual and as common as cups of coffee. And the source of this delusion, it seemed, was the existence of topless beaches, by which it was probably fair to say that he was obsessed: it had taken less than five minutes from our initial introduction at a previous lab barbecue for him to begin interrogating me, “man to man”, about what I had seen on the beaches of Zakynthos, and he had repeated his questions several times since.

Not that I had resented his doing so. On the contrary, there was something distinctly refreshing – as well as amusing – about the frankness with which he thus displayed his preoccupations. After all, God knew that your average Harvard postdoc, regardless of their continent of origin, tended to hold their cards very close to their chest (academia, after all, is hardly the most attractive of career options for those of an expansive temperament). Yet Pete, by contrast, let it all hang out. He freely admitted to having a subscription to the topless news channel, as well as to frequenting topless bars in Lynn. Nor was he even shy about divulging his plans for an excursion to the nudist beach which apparently lurked behind some particularly well-endowed dunes just beyond the Canadian border.

Moreover, it was not as if I entertained the slightest fear that Eleni might surrender to his advances. For the truth was that Pete Mulligan was exactly the kind of unsophisticated, unselfconscious, unenlightened “man out of focus” for whose production she – in common with the rest of the Europeans – condemned American culture. She decried the “spray cheesy” AOR he played on the stereo in his lab, the slack jeans that hung off his backside “as if he had shat himself” and his endless collection of freebie “geek chic” T-shirts, bearing the logos of academic conferences he had attended or pharmaceutical products he had ordered. But it was the pot belly, sustained by an alleged average daily intake of four litres of Coca-Cola – swigged from giant plastic bottles between experiments - which really set the tongues surreptitiously wagging whenever it was seen to protrude from beneath a machine-shrunken hem.

And then there was the hair. Mulligan bore far too close a resemblance to mullet for Pete to avoid becoming known to all and sundry as Pete the Mullet. Reaching halfway down his back, it was the proud recipient of regular perms at his local hairdresser, as well as even more frequent bleaching in his own bathroom, with peroxide purloined from his lab stocks (a cost-cutting measure with, he claimed, saved him $20 a month). He also admitted to giving his thick moustache the same treatment, although rumours still lingered that it was all the acid in the Coke that really did it.

“At least one of your lab mates could have offered us a lift!” I murmured at length, glaring at a passing car in displaced resentment. “Or are the back seats of American cars only for show?”

Most of the Harvard Europeans remained remarkably loyal to public transport despite the appalling service, but the Americans were a very different story; according to a Bostonian lab mate of Eleni’s, only “losers” used the subway at the weekend.

“Maybe we could get a lift back with someone, at least,” she suggested.

“No chance: they’ll all be back home by now, watching the Red Sox game.”

“That’s true.”

“And there won’t be any food left either.”


That seemed to be the pattern at Medical School barbecues: the Americans would arrive early with a young child or two and a plastic Stop and Shop bags full of burgers and chicken drumsticks, which they would proceed to eat while standing around the grill and chatting desultorily about television, pre-school care and their most recent out-of-town shopping trips. Then, just as they began to drift off home, the Europeans would start to arrive with brown paper bags full of alcohol and pockets bulging with CDs, to which the Mediterraneans would spend evening dancing while those from the North Sea rim looked on drinking beer, arguing about football and agreeing what a global calamity the election of George W Bush had been.

“So what do you want to do for the next hour?” I asked, surprised to see an all-but-empty rollercoaster train executing an all-but-silent loop the loop; we had assumed in January that the whole place was derelict. “The fair seems to be open…”

“Fuck that!” declared Eleni, fixing her eyes on a large brown and white car as it emerged from the heat haze. “Let’s get this taxi.”

“Are you sure?” I asked, uncertainly, still not quite having regained my sense of financial security despite the healthy dual income we now enjoyed. “It might be expensive: we don’t know how far it is.”

“I don’t care,” replied Eleni, thrusting her hand out with all the gusto of a punch. “I’m not spending a whole hour in this fucking dump.”

“I suppose you’re right,” I agreed, reluctantly, rising to my feet. “We are very late…”

At first it looked as if the taxi wasn’t going to stop but, at the last minute, it suddenly lurched into the lay-by that constituted the bus stop. Instinctively, I leaned down to snatch Eleni’s bag from its prone position in the gutter, but a superior reflex of self-preservation threw me back again as the car closed in on my skull in a Hollywood screech of brakes.

“Why don’t you put that in the trunk?” said Eleni, glancing impassively at the green canvas rucksack lying less than half an inch from the taxi’s near back wheel. After all, erratic and inattentive though they almost invariably were by British standards, Bostonian taxi drivers were paragons of consistency and discipline compared to the kind of kamikaze dodgem racers with whom Eleni had got used to sharing the roads while learning to drive in Athens as an undergraduate.

“Boot!” I corrected, waving my hand vigorously in front of my face, as much to dissipate the rush of adrenalin that the near miss had evoked as to dispel the cloud of dust it had kicked up. “It’s a car, not a fucking elephant!”

“It’s not a fucking shoe either,” she retorted, opening the rear door. “Just pass the bag to me. I need to get the address out of it anyway.”

She sat down with a little shriek as I leaned down and picked up the bag; it was only when I sat down beside her and the black, sun-heated black leather came into contact with my bare legs that I realized that shriek had not, after all, been one of exasperation at my habit of chiding her for every Americanism that slipped into her vocabulary. Indeed, I was obliged to call on all my English reserve so as not to echo her reaction at twice the volume.

Stretching her skirt down between the backs of her thighs and the seat, she reached into the front pocket of her bag and removed the white post-it note on which Pete had written his address. She leant forward and passed it to the driver – a seriously overweight Hispanic sporting a good three days of stubble and huge sweat-stains in the armpits of his shirt - who grunted something we took to indicate that he knew where it was, then proceeded to screw the paper into a ball, toss it out of the open window and drive off in much the same whiplash-threatening fashion as that in which he had come to a halt.

“Well, however hot it might feel, at least we needn’t fear being incinerated today,” I murmured, peering fearfully out of the back window at the startlingly close owner of the horn which had angrily greeted us as we joined the main road.

“What are you talking about?” asked Eleni, even she looking a little nervous as the driver simply leaned forward nonchalantly and turned up the radio. “You get burned even when it’s cloudy.”

“I mean that Phaeton is evidently too busy driving his taxi today to concern himself with his father’s chariot.”

Phaethon was a reckless young man who, one day, manipulated his father, Apollo, into letting him drive the chariot of the sun. However, Phaethon’s inexperience, and consequent inability to control the horses, threatened to consume the Earth in flames until Zeus struck him dead with a thunderbolt. Not that Eleni was remotely interested in her country’s ancient mythology – as the silence with which she responded to my explanation attested. Indeed, it is fair to say that she had actually come to resent my frequent, irresistible allusions to it, on account of her immortal suspicion that, as a Classicist, I was only interested in her because I associated her with Eleni of Troy. On one occasion when she had drunkenly voiced that suspicion, I had replied that any man would be interested in a woman who evoked comparisons with the most beautiful female who ever lived - and that any woman other than her would be flattered by such a comparison. However, that had failed to placate her. She said any man who was so enslaved to received, hackneyed notions of beauty that he started a war over the woman who best embodied them was a fool and a criminal.

A sign flashed past us reading: Lynn 15.

“Lynn? Isn’t that where Pete’s topless bar it?” I asked, my forehead banging against the window glass as the taxi juddered through one of the numerous potholes which, much to our initial surprise, littered the road surfaces in this land of the automobile.

“I think so,” she nodded, with a faint smile.

“So much for him wanting to live out here to recreate his beachside Californian childhood!”

“He says he also likes it because it’s cheap. Apparently he pays half of what we do - although God knows why he needs such a cheap house: he earns more than I do and it’s not as if he has kids or a car. He never even goes on holiday, apparently: he doesn’t even have a passport.”

“He must have an extremely serious pornography habit,”

“I don’t want to know,” she frowned, peering at a roadside banner in Spanish, the numerous grammatical failings and English corruptions of which would doubtless have been pointed out to us, with a mixture of amusement and dismay, had any of the Harvard Iberian contingent been with us.

“How old is Pete?” I asked, eventually.

“Late thirties.”

“And yet he’s still a post doc?”


“Couldn’t he have been a group leader by now? Or isn’t he up to it?”

“No. He’s very clever. Apparently he knows more than his boss about many things.”

“So why doesn’t he apply?”

“That’s a good question. Maybe he doesn’t want the responsibility… It’s shit around here, isn’t it?”

I put my finger to my lip urgently. After all, it was highly likely that our driver – who already seemed hell-bent on killing us - lived somewhere in the vicinity, and we couldn’t entirely rely on his incomprehension of English spoken with a Greco-British accent. But once I was sure he wasn’t watching us in his overtaking mirror, I did see fit to nod. For despite the preponderance of the kind of colourful weatherboarding which I still found distinctly exotic and picturesque, the area was undeniably shabby and desolate: the kind of anonymous, blue-collar hinterland your average SUV-driving Brookline resident would rush through as quickly as possible on their way up to the fashionable beaches further up the coast, without a thought for the poor bastards who were obliged to call it home.

Then again, what would our driver’s family back in Mexico have said had they know that he was, at that moment, driving a taxi with $30 on the meter? $30! Such a sum would have been beyond their wildest dreams. Indeed, it was close to going beyond my worst nightmare too. God, what a preposterous undertaking this was! To hell with conscience! Why hadn’t we just taken the commuter rail to that king of misnamed towns, Manchester-by-the-Sea? For once, I wouldn’t even have resented paying the dollar ‘walk on’ fee for the admittedly lovely beach which the local council had the – to our Old World sensibilities - outrageous gall to charge. After all, it wasn’t as if we would have been missed: Pete had apparently invited practically everyone on his floor of the Medical School: at least thirty people, not counting respective spouses and children. No, we wouldn’t have been missed at all…

Eventually, after another $5 had been accounted for, we turned off the highway onto a long street of small, mostly whitewashed, weather-boarded houses, each fourth one of which was indicated by a telegraph pole on the footpath in front of it, leaning at a unique angle to the vertical such that the cables zigzagged their way into the distance like the spiders’ silk-ways that had used to glimmer every morning, dripping with dew, on our little lawn in Oxford.

The taxi finally pulled up at the tall, possibly man-made sand dunes that blocked off the end of the street. Withdrawing the entire $40 contents of my wallet, I passed it all forward and wincingly told the driver to keep the change (even if he hadn’t been so big and, apparently, unhinged, we had learned never to dream of withholding a generous “gratuity” from an American taxi driver after more than one had taken us to task over our doing during Black January, when we had been forced to use taxis to bring home the furniture we needed). Then I followed Eleni out, slammed the door behind me and took her hand in mine as the car executed a hasty three-point turn and then diminished into the distance.

“Welcome to Ithaca,” I muttered, as the sound of the engine was superseded by the chirping of the crickets and the faint thud of a basketball being bounced in a distant driveway.

“It’s certainly as desolate as Ithaca,” agreed Eleni, looking around her in bewilderment. “Never mind the Odyssey you have to undertake to get here.”

“Imagine what it must be like on a winter night.”

“Fucking hell…”

I reached my arm around her waist as we perversely savoured the imagined horror of being buried where we stood, in our summer clothes, by an invisible nor’easter.

“So, do you remember which number Pete’s is?” I asked at length, as we were recalled to reality by the almost comforting roar of another plane, invisible behind the sand dunes.

“I think it’s that one,” she said, pointing to the little house at the very end of the street. “Number seventy-five.”

“It’s double-glazed,” I observed, disapprovingly.

“I don’t suppose that bothers Pete.”


“And at least it keeps out the noise of the planes better: apparently they start landing at five-thirty every morning.”


She set off towards Pete’s driveway.

“Where are you going?” I called after her. “I thought it was going to be on the beach?”

“Yes,” she agreed, without stopping. “But it might be over by now: there aren’t any cars here, are there?”

“But if it’s over, it’s over,” I protested, inching forward as she approached the house. “Pete probably has a lot of cleaning up to do: I’m sure he won’t want us hanging around.”

“Well, we’ll ask him,” she said, stopping and glancing over her shoulder as I lingered on the pavement. “You’re not scared, are you?”

“Eleni, as Aristotle so rightly noted, there is a happy medium between cowardice and foolhardiness.”

“But what is there to be scared of?” she laughed, scornfully. “He’s not a Cyclops.”

“Don’t be too sure! He is almost the size of one, for a start. And his two-dimensional world-view suggests that one of his eyes might well just be painted on. No, Eleni, I wouldn’t put it past him to eat me alive and then ravish you with his red-hot poker!”

I was joking, of course, but, at the same time, I did feel some genuine unease about the prospect of encountering Pete in his own lair. After all, who knew what such a big, strong, sexually frustrated Republican was capable of doing when confronted, in his own house, with the golden Greek apple of his desire and her pinko English stick of asparagus of a husband? Who knew what depraved implements of restraint he had stashed away under the stairs?

“Don’t be stupid,” responded Eleni, with a frown of distaste, marching towards the front door purposefully.

Protective instinct impelled me reluctantly after her. However, instead of knocking on the front door, she merely peered at it curiously. Hurrying up to her, my gaze, too, was caught by the pair of his white post-it notes (evidently a freebie from the reagents company whose logo they bore) stuck side-by-side on the white plastic. I am on the beach read the first note, while on the second Pete had drawn a neat, detailed little map indicating how to find the precise point on the beach which he had chosen.

“X marks the spot,” I remarked, vaguely touched by the entirely needless effort which his cartography had evidently involved. For all that was really required was the sentence Go to the beach and look right.

“Only a scientist could have drawn that,” smiled Eleni, retracing her steps up the driveway.

The X was drawn immediately adjacent to the water’s edge. Indeed, Pete had chosen today for his barbecue precisely because the high tide was due to occur around midday, when everyone was supposed to arrive. That way, people wouldn’t have to walk far from the encampment to play their part in the inter-lab water volleyball tournament for which they had expressed such enthusiasm when he had proposed it. However, our slow, sweaty ascent of the dunes revealed that, by now, the lazy little waves were breaking a good two hundred yards from the strip of dazzlingly bright, dry sand which indicated the high water mark.

“Can you see him?” I asked, hastily sliding my feet back into my sandals on account of the unbearable temperature of the sand.

“That must be him,” she said, pointing in the direction indicated by the map. ‘You can see his hair sticking out of that awful hat of his.”

I imitated Eleni’s pose as she stood with her hand held to her forehead like the brim of Pete’s beloved LA Dodgers cap. And, sure enough, there was that very item, about fifty yards away, beneath which could be seen Pete’s equally unmistakable, shirtless belly rising out of his lap like another dune as his reclined in a beach chair. He was surrounded by all manner of inanimate objects but, it appeared, not a single human soul.

“He’s on his own,” I murmured, darkly.

“Yes,” confirmed Eleni, watching as he lifted a bottle to his lips and then set it down again in the pocket in the arm of his chair. A gull lumbered above our heads as if weighed down by the heaviness of the atmosphere.

“Should we just go back?” I ventured, uncertainly. “He’s probably not going to be very happy about having to entertain us if everyone else has already gone. It’s not as if we’re really his friends or anything...”

“Fuck that,” she responded, with only a touch less than her usual emphatic conviction. “There’s no way I’m spending $42 and travelling for three hours just to walk up a fucking sand hill. I demand at least a swim.”

“I suppose you’re right…” I admitted, with a heavy sigh.

“Come on,” she said, setting off down the slope towards him. “The gannets might even have left us a bit of food.”

“Christ, I hope so,” I responded, following in her rapidly filling footprints. “I’m starving.”

As we approached Pete, the identities of the objects by which he was surrounded gradually revealed their identities. There was a giant plastic drinks cooler with a miniature surfboard wedged into the sand adjacent to one of its thinner sides, like the stone at the head of a grave. Next to that there was a ball, a pair of beach tennis racquets, a neatly folded pile of multicoloured towels and various white plastic bags. It was only when we were almost upon him that I detected the strangely flat voices emanating from the little radio half-hidden in the sandal at his feet.

“Pete, I’m really sorry we’re so late,” began Eleni, breathlessly, before Pete had even noticed our approach. “The T was a nightmare; I can’t believe you travel all that way every day!”

Her bag chinked noisily as she dropped it unceremoniously onto the sand in front of him.

“You are certainly the Ulysses of the New World,” I agreed, following her lead and sinking down onto my knees like a citizen of Ithaca upon the return of his long-lost king.

“Odysseus,” she corrected, her lack of interest in her country’s mythology not being so complete as to tolerate my occasional lapse into what she called the Roman usurpers’ nomenclature.

“Sorry, the Odysseus of the New World.”

“And now we’ve missed everyone,” she continued, reverting her attention to Pete. “I know it’s very bad manners to be so late. We won’t stay long: I just need a swim after all that time travelling.”

“How was water polo?” I asked, a little perturbed by Pete’s apparent reluctance to speak.

“There wasn’t any water polo,” he replied, reaching toward the pile of towels and tossing the top two towards us. “You can lie on these.”

“Why? Was the current from Canada down again?” I persisted, standing up once more to spread the towels on the sand.

“No. But you can’t play water polo on your own,” answered Pete, turning down the volume on his radio despite the rising clamour of the next plane looming in the distance like a petrified gull.

“What? Didn’t anyone want to play?” cried Eleni, rolling over onto the towel I had just spread beside her and slipping her dress over her head. “The lazy buggers!”

“Actually, nobody even showed up,” replied Pete, almost inaudibly above the mounting noise, adjusting his sunglasses as Eleni adjusted the bra of her bikini.

“What? Nobody at all?” she cried, incredulously.

Pete shook his head enigmatically and continued to feast his eyes on her siren’s curves, placing his index fingers in his ears as the noise reached its height.

“It’s a shame because I went out and bought all this chicken,” he resumed, as the plane’s rear sank towards the loops of the Wonderland rollercoaster, still just distinguishable in the distance. “Do you want some? It’s a bit cold now, but it should still be OK…”

He reached down into one of the plastic bags and withdrew a huge bucket of Kentucky Fried Chicken wings.

“I don’t eat meat, unfortunately,” I said, recoiling despite my hunger. “Do you want some, Eleni?”

“Maybe a bit,” she answered, taking the bucket dubiously, removing the lid and peering inside at the lumps of soggy batter.

“Drinks are all in the cooler. You’re not teetotal as well, are you?”

“Heaven forbid,” I answered, walking on my knees towards the cooler. God knew that I had been burned enough times – both figuratively and literally – by the heady combination of alcohol and sunshine. Nevertheless, given the decidedly awkward social circumstances, as well as the effective lack of any other form of sustenance, the attainment of that characteristically woozy, one-step-removed-from-reality feeling struck me as a highly attractive proposition. “If it wasn’t for alcohol, Eleni and I would still just be passing acquaintances.”

“The English race would die out if they didn’t have beer to remove their inhibitions,” assented Eleni, with a sly grin. “Isn’t that pathetic?”

“On the other hand, at least women in England aren’t constantly pestered by lascivious men,” I added, unable to resist a quick glance in Pete’s direction.

“No – that’s why English women flock to Greece and Spain to lie on the beach all week in nothing but a thong. No Greek woman would ever be that desperate for attention!”

“Do you need a hand with that?” asked Pete, watching me struggling with the clasps on the cooler, ignoring Eleni’s pregnant comments.

“No, I think I’ve got it,” I replied, finally eliciting a click from the mysterious little mechanism. “Open sesame!”

I lifted up the lid and peered inside at the mass of beer bottles submerged beneath an inch or so of melt water.

“Christ, Pete, I see now why you marked this spot on your map with an X,” I exclaimed, pleasantly surprised to see a few bottles of my favourite Mexican beer glowing among the dull brown ranks of Budweiser. “This is a priceless chest of gold you’ve dug up!”

“If you dig down a bit toward the left, you’ll find cocktails too,” he responded, more to Eleni than to me. “I can highly recommend them: that’s why there are none left at the top!”

Wincing with the shock, I plunged my arm into the slush and pushed all the beer bottles to the right of the chest to reveal, shimmering in the water like tropical fish, about thirty little plastic tubes filled with various brightly-coloured liquids.

“Jesus, look at this Eleni.”

She walked on her knees towards me.

“Oh! You used Falcon tubes from the lab!” she cried, excitedly. ‘That’s such a good idea!”

“The piña colada is particularly good,” remarked Pete, stroking his moustache suavely.

“What’s the orange one?” asked Eleni.

“That’s a California screw,” replied Pete, admiring her bottom as she leant over the chest. “Vodka, orange juice and grapefruit.”

“Do you have sex on the beach as well?” I asked, dryly.

“I’m afraid not,” answered Pete. “I don’t know how to make that one. What is it?”

“I don’t know: we should ask a Canadian.”

“Well, I’ll have a California screw if you please, barman,” grinned Eleni. “I suppose you want one too, Pete?”

“Hell, why not?”

“Then I’ll have a piña colada,” I said, plunging my free hand into the slush. “Somebody has to preserve some sense of decorum.”

As I fished for the tubes, I met Eleni’s gaze knowingly, aware from the soft look in her eyes that she was as moved as I was. The poor bastard. He had brought out all this stuff to play with, ordered all this food and drink, even gone to the trouble of making individual measures of cocktails for everyone, and no-one had even had the decency to turn up: not even those of his own lab mates who had convinced him to organize the event in the first place. He had been sitting there on his own for three and a half hours, watching the tide go out with nothing but the baseball commentary for company, until we had finally arrived – reluctantly, unforgivably late and with a distinctly satirical attitude. The poor bastard.

Strangely enough, Pete himself didn’t seem unduly concerned by the mass no-show, soon launching into lengthy monologues on the Canadian nudist beach and the superiority of the Los Angeles Dodgers to the Boston Red Sox. Perhaps the edge had been taken off his disappointment and resentment by the sun and the alcohol, or perhaps he was just too polite, too American to express such negative feelings. Either way, it was hard to believe he wasn’t churning up inside, and the more of his cocktails I drank, the more I wished there had been something more we could do for him than just pretend to be interested while he explained the rules of baseball in both its American and National league forms.

Indeed, such was the intensity of my pity for him that I was positively glad when Eleni responded positively to his suggestion that we go for a swim – and my refusal to accompany them was inspired not so much by the alcoholic haze as by a desire to give him the sole enjoyment of her wet-bikini-clad company for a quarter of an hour (albeit that that bikini was not of his beloved thong variety - which, according to him, could be seen in surprising abundance if you walked down the beach towards central Revere, where the Brazilian girls congregated).

“He thinks he’ll become radioactive,” jeered Eleni, standing above me and prodding my back with her foot.

“Oh, the water’s perfectly clean,” asserted Pete, a little half-heartedly. “Massachusetts Bay used to have a deservedly bad reputation, but they’ve cleaned it up real well. I swim every morning and evening in the summer and it hasn’t done me any harm.”

It occurred to me to make a joke about its having bleached his moustache but I refrained, having already learned from awkward experience at work how little Americans appreciate the kind of ribbing that is second nature to the English. So, murmuring that I was too drunk to swim, I closed my eyes again and pretended to be on the verge of sleep, before propping myself up on my elbows to watch them as they walked towards the water. Just in case…

An hour and a half or so later, when the sun had disappeared behind the clouds which had suddenly precipitated from nowhere, I challenged Eleni to a game of beach tennis. Not that I was feeling quite the same intensity of compassion for Pete by now: there was only so long that boredom’s tide could be held back by an alcohol-waxed moon of pathos. Nevertheless, it occurred to me that the best way to cut short his tediously earnest defence of the sporting credentials of his favourite event at the Athens Olympics, the women’s beach volleyball, would be to confront him with the sight of Eleni demonstrating similarly breathtaking skill. Moreover, I knew what it was like to be alone, as he was: I knew what it was like for television screens to constitute one’s most potent source of sexual gratification. And I just felt like celebrating the fact that that was no longer the case: the fact that my pale, skinny phenotype had proved more attractive to Greek women than it had to English ones: the fact that Eleni was my gorgeous wife and that Pete the Mullet could look all he wanted, but he could never touch. Ah, I was even prepared to let her beat me, for once...

However, before we had even reached the first set tie-break, the sky had grown so dark that we deemed it time to make a strategic withdrawal from the beach. Not that we were afraid of getting wet: indeed, the humidity had already become so extreme that it felt as if the air was condensing around us. But lightning was a different matter: only last week someone had been mortally struck while walking his dog along the beach at Wonderland. And then there was that horrifyingly ironic story Eleni had recently told me – as irrefutable proof of the non-existence of God - about the man in Greece who had been struck at his friend’s funeral on account of the large iron crucifix he had been wearing around his neck for the occasion…

After folding up his dangerously metal-legged chair and sliding it into its cylindrical bag, Pete leant down and pulled out the plug of the chest, leaving Eleni and I to watch with the glee of urinating children as the melt-water gushed out of the hole, instantly dredging an elaborate series of dark, winding canals in the off-white sand.

“I don’t think we’ll be able to take everything in one go,” I remarked, looking around at all the paraphernalia and recalling the considerable dead weight of beer bottles that still remained in the chest. “Do you want to wait here for us, Elen, while we take the chest?”

“Sure we can take it all in one go,” retorted Pete, placing the surf board on top of the cooler, followed by the towels.

“Are you sure?” I asked, dubiously. “My biceps may not look like much, but I can assure that they look much stronger than they really are.”

“You’ll be fine,” replied Pete, dismissively, thrusting the folding chair under one arm before lifting the chest with his other hand. “I carried it here on my own.”

“Ooh!” giggled Eleni, rushing up and feeling his bicep admiringly and he led the way slowly, jerkily toward his house. “The Californian Heracles!”

“Odysseus,” I corrected, a little breathlessly, imitating Pete’s tiny, rapid steps which were the only means of moving the chest’s cumbersome bulk. “The Californian Odysseus.”

“I think he looks more of a Heracles,” persisted Eleni, gathering up the remaining items hastily. “Don’t you agree, Pete?”

“But Heracles doesn’t fit him,” I insisted, watching her over my shoulder. “He’s not doing twelve labours, is he? Whereas he does travel home a long way every night – and he is often waylaid by topless sirens!”

“Topless sirens: now you’re talking!” grinned Pete.

“Odysseus it is, then,” I answered.

“His name sounds cooler too,” confirmed Pete.

“Well, if you’re the Californian Odysseus,” declared Eleni, hurrying up with us, her arms laden with bags, balls and the dress she still hadn’t had a chance to put back on, “Who is the California Penelope, who you travel all this way to come home to every night?”

“There is no Californian Penelope,” he answered, with a dismissive laugh.

“Are you sure?” she persisted, as we began to ascend the dunes.

“Positive. Now you want to hurry through these dunes: they’re full of ticks that carry Lyme’s disease.”

Eleni gave a cry and dashed ahead of us, leaving us to make our elephantine progress between the malign clumps of grass as quickly as we could: an effort which had turned even Pete’s face a liquid red by the time we had reached the summit. His claim to have done all this by himself earlier, I concluded, could only have been a piece of utterly mendacious bravado: in reality, he must have brought the beer little by little and only put it in the cooler on the beach.

As we descended the dunes, the ever-rising agony in my arms was mitigated somewhat by the amusing sight of Eleni standing at the top of Pete’s driveway surrounded by all the stuff she had dropped, urgently scanning every inch of her body for anything that might correspond to her notion of what a tick must look like before slipping her dress back over her head.

“Could you open the front door for us, Eleni?” called Pete, over his shoulder. “It’s not locked.”

“You don’t lock your door?” she cried, in surprise.

“There’s no need.” he replied, breezily. “That’s one of the nice things about living out here.”

We made our way up the driveway and through the door which Eleni held open for us, setting the chest down on the kitchen floor.

My exhaustion was such that it took me a few moments to even register my surroundings. When I did, however, I was surprised to note that, far from every grubby surface being piled high with three days’ unwashed dishes, everything was strikingly clean and tidy. Nor was the bathroom anything like the pubic hair-riddled latrine we had envisaged – with gleeful revulsion - on the subway. And even the bedroom, where our tour of the house reached its end, hardly resembled the malodorous pit we had expected. True, the Dali poster and Pamela Anderson calendar on the walls, not to mention the science fiction novel and electronic game console on the floor, made it look more like the bedroom of a freshman than of a very senior postdoctoral fellow. Furthermore, the net curtain in front of its window, combined with the deep brown of its carpet (the symbol, for continental Europeans like Eleni, of Americans’ lamentable preference for ‘comfort’ over style), lent it a darkness and sense of insulation from the outside world which was distinctly unpleasant after two previous hours spent on a semi-deserted beach. Still, it was relatively recently vacuumed there wasn’t a single soiled undergarment to be seen anywhere.

“You’re welcome to wait out the storm here, by the way,” remarked Pete, as he set about creating waves in the waterbed, onto which he had succeeded in enticing Eleni.

“No, it’s OK,” she replied, giggling with a mixture of pleasure, surprise and unease at the peculiar sensation. “We should get back: we’re supposed to be meeting Blanca for a drink later.”

That wasn’t true, but I wasn’t about to expose her. For the sight of her lying there on that oversized bed next to Pete the Mullet suddenly brought all my earlier misgiving flooding back. For even though there were no obvious stains visible on its purple satin comforter, there still seemed to be something essentially unclean about it. After all, who knew what undreamt-of, internet-ordered phenomena lurked in the black cabinet at its head? Besides, my exertions with the cooler had combined with the alcohol and the consummately close atmosphere to precipitate quite a headache, such that my patience for small talk was rapidly coming to an end.

“Suit yourselves,” he answered, ceasing his exertions and looking at his watch. “You should be on the bus before the rain starts anyway if you get the next one: it’s due in ten minutes.”

There was no direct evidence of disappointment in his tone as he proceeded to explain how to get to the bus stop – although, an hour previously, I’m sure I would have interpreted the needless detail into which he went as a redirection of such a feeling.

“I think I just heard thunder,” I declared, cutting short a lengthy subsequent monologue on the traffic conditions on an average Sunday evening in the Revere area.

“Yes, you should get going,” agreed Pete. “You can shelter under the awning of the grocery store next to the bus stop if the storm breaks before the bus comes. Just make sure you stick your hand out so the driver stops!”

“We will,” assured Eleni.

With effusive declarations of what a wonderful afternoon we had had, we made our way to the front door and stepped outside. However, just as we did so, the door of the house opposite also opened, and, from it, emerged an attractive, blond-haired woman of around thirty-five, her face heavily made up, her jeans stretched onto shapely hips and her ample bust covered by a short pink T-shirt that ended just above the gold stud in her belly button.

“Why, hello, Peter!” she called, with an exaggerated grin. “You’ve got visitors, I see! Whatever next?”

“Yes, this is Eleni and Paul,” replied Pete, a little sheepishly. “Guys, this is Martha, my neighbour.”

“Pleased to meet you,” she said, approaching us and offering us a red-nailed hand to shake.

“Eleni works with me at Harvard,” continued Pete, pulling his door closed behind him. “She’s Greek.”

“Oh really?” cried Martha, as if that were the most fascinating thing she had ever heard. “I’ve been watching some of the Olympics from there. It looks awesome!”

“Yes…” muttered Eleni, doing very well to disguise her horror at having the “O-word” mentioned to her yet again. For she was even less interested in sport than she was in mythology.

The rather awkward silence was filled by another growl of thunder and the gathering shriek of yet another plane. A glance at the sky revealed the clouds to have taken on the strange purple-yellow darkness of a black eye.

“Well, I must dash,” said Martha, taking a step backwards onto her own driveway.

“You’re working tonight?” asked Pete.

“I sure am,” she grinned, walking towards her new-looking red coupe. “Are you guys taking the bus to Wonderland?” she called, opening the car door.

Eleni and I both nodded reluctantly as she opened the car door.

“Can I offer you a lift to the bus stop? I’m going the other way or I’d take you all the way to Wonderland.”

“Oh no, it’s OK,” answered Eleni, as the noise reached its height.

“We like to walk,” I added.

“They’re Europeans!” added Pete, with a comedic wink.

“Whatever,” she responded, stooping into what I still instinctively – and confusingly - assumed was the passenger’s seat until I saw her multi-ringed fingers grasping the steering wheel. “It was nice to meet you guys anyway!”

“You too,” we assured her, as her high heels lifted up off the ground and disappeared behind the slamming door.

“So there is a Californian Penelope after all!” giggled Eleni, as the car reversed into the road. “I thought I detected a woman’s touch in your bathroom!”

“No way,” declared Pete instantly, returning Martha’s wave with exaggerated relish. “We’re just friends.”

“Are you sure?” she teased.

“Positive,” he asserted, colouring slightly.


“Why?” echoed Pete, incredulously. ‘What kind of a question is that?”

“A good question. What’s wrong with her?”

“She’s just not my type,” he shrugged, watching her car shrinking into the distance.

“What do you mean, not your type!” cried Eleni, staggered by his statement. “What more could any Californian man ask for than big tits, blue eyes and blond hair – albeit bleached blond hair…”

She was teasing him, of course, but I felt sure there was some genuine component to her bewilderment since, for all her self-confidence and sophistication, she did suffer from a mild inferiority complex towards women who conformed to the popular stereotype of beauty.

“I don’t like trashy women like that,” he asserted, with a shake of the head, as Martha’s car turned onto the main road.

“What bullshit!” she cried. “What about Pam Anderson! What about all those women in the topless bars?”

Even Eleni was too tactful to ask, but it did seem highly possible that one of those bars constituted Martha’s place of work. Quite apart from the natural talent she obviously possessed for such work, there was surely no way anyone could afford a car like hers on a normal barmaid’s salary – and what other kind of work began at six o’clock on a Sunday evening in Lynn?

“Oh, they’re just eye-candy,” responded Pete, dismissively. “I’d never actually want to get involved with anyone like that.”

And that, we agreed, as we stood at the bus stop watching all the Brookline SUVs returning from Crane Beach, was Pete’s problem in a nutshell: he had no interest in “getting together” with the kind of American Aphrodites with whom he actually had something in common: the only team, as it were, in his ballpark. For somewhere down the line he had become obsessed with the kind of cosmopolitan, Old World Athenes with whom he was rather incongruously thrust together by a common professional interest in biomedical research. (Perhaps that obsession even accounted for his apparent lack of scientific ambition: perhaps he didn’t want to become a boss because he thought that it would put up a barrier of status between himself and those postdoctoral objects of his desire). And all because he had got it into his head that Europe had entirely rid itself of the Puritanism he claimed to despise in his own country’s culture when it had expelled the Pilgrim Fathers in the seventeenth century, leaving its women free to remove their bikini tops on the beach without expecting to be paid a cent for it: opening up the possibility of his entering an unimagined sexual Wonderland if only he could lure one of them back to his water bed.

“And, course, he is never put off by the fact that he never gets so much as a hint of encouragement from any of them,” I murmured, thoughtfully, as the first raindrops began to speckle the sidewalk.

“No,” confirmed Eleni, retreating under the awning Pete had promised us, in front of a shop window obscured by a giant sticker of a cartoon watermelon. “Although it seems to me that his problem is actually even worse than that.”

“How do you mean?” I asked, hurrying to join her as the cool drops began to spatter on the back of my neck.

“Well, it seems to me that rejection only makes him keener. Telling him to fuck off that day on the quadrangle only made him come to my lab even more often.”

“Perhaps he just thought you were playing hard to get,” I suggested, as the rain suddenly began to pound the pavement. “Every man knows that when a woman says no, she really means yes.”

“No, but I think it doesn’t only apply to women,” she continued, pressing her back against the watermelon as the splashing raindrops grasped at her legs like enchanted minions of Pete’s. “Think of how little he resents his lab mates for not coming today. I mean, would you respond to such a slap in the face by making excuses for them all and looking through the paper to find when the next Sunday afternoon high tide would be?”

“No, I wouldn’t,” I agreed, as the bus finally lumbered into view, ploughing through the deep puddles which had already formed in the gutter.

Sure enough, as Eleni confirmed to me that evening, Pete spent his Monday morning coffee break not in demanding explanations as to why people hadn’t shown up but, rather, in extracting solemn promises that they would not fail again in three weeks’ time. And, by all accounts, he was more solicitous than ever during the ensuing period whenever his lab mates asked for his help with their experiments.

Meanwhile, Eleni’s experiments were interrupted by person after furtively grinning person as word got around that she had, by some miracle, avoided the combined perils of sudden illness, experimental obligation and the loss of her post-it note with Pete’s address on it (delete as appropriate). For, Americans and Europeans alike, they were all desperate to hear exactly how sordid Pete’s house was, as well as exactly how depressed he had been about the mass no show. And they were hugely disappointed when Eleni, bristling with vicarious indignation, brushed them off with non-committal monosyllables.

All the same, it was not exactly a sense of moral superiority that warmed our hearts as we took our place amid the sickly stench of diesel on the number 73 bus. After all, we ourselves had hardly been free of morbid curiosity regarding Pete the Mullet’s home environment - and even the fact that we were the only ones who had deemed our promise to attend his barbecue to be worth keeping was conceivably best explained by our unique squeamishness about citing lame excuses. Nor was it fear that caused us to squeeze each other’s shoulders so tightly, for all the vehicle’s frequent, violent lurches as it smashed through the flooded potholes like a fishing boat on a stormy sea. No, it was, rather, a tender sense of satisfaction that our presence – however tardy, however grudging it had been - had happened to save Pete the Mullet from spending the whole day waiting on the beach on his own, as the tide edged ever further away. And there was something emotionally beautiful about that – if not for Pete himself then at least for us.

Yes, that was why, in the end, we didn’t feel the need to waste three months’ wages on wedding rings. It was because, when I remarked that the bare-chested Pete had resembled a beached whale - or perhaps, given his moustache, a beached walrus - our grins both faded in unison as we recalled the poor creature that had been stranded somewhere on Cape Cod a couple of weeks previously and, despite the best efforts of the locals, had died an agonized death utterly beyond the reach of its own kind. It was because, when Eleni added that he had looked exactly like the kind of Germanic barbarian of whom the native Ionian girls made such fun as they sizzled on the beach and retched in the gutters during their summer holidays, we both reflected that, after all, that was hardly a stereotype to which a Californian could be expected to be sensitized. It was because, as we dashed, hand in hand, through the almost preternatural Niagara that was bombarding the Wonderland station car park, our minds dwelling on the image I had had just evoked of Pete kneeling beside his bed and masturbating over the impression Eleni’s body had left in his comforter, we both felt nothing but sadness, nothing but compassion, nothing but blessed.

© 2007 by Paul Jump



About the Author

Paul Jump is a freelance writer and journalist living in London. Contact him at



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