Postcard from Athens: Letter to a Thief

My moment of loss is hard to pinpoint. I was on the bus to Syntagma Square, squeezed between bodies, comfortable with the smells sealed in my memory of college days in Delhi, then I got off at the sun-dripped stop, ready to take in Syntagma’s expanse, be among the swarm passing by the regal parliament building and linger at the palm tree-lined garden. But when I couldn’t pay for ice cream, I felt the kind of foreboding you feel in the pit of your stomach when you are afraid to acknowledge what your brain has already registered. My wallet, that fat old wallet, brown and worn, which usually sat like an egg amongst keys and other strange objects at the bottom of my bag, was gone. It was my fault. Who stuffs a small crossbody bag with a bulbous spartan helmet that wouldn’t allow the zip to be fastened? Besides, I wasn’t paying attention. Athens messes with your timeline. History doesn’t hide behind fortresses here; it beckons you from every corner. You followed your instinct. I ignored mine.

Slumped on a stone bench, I summed my losses: $400 or two years of birthday money from my mother gone along with the longing for the expensive shoes I couldn’t bring myself to buy; credit and debit cards, I could cancel. But a gnawing suspicion persisted as if I was forgetting something important. Suddenly, in the midst of Syntagma’s chaos, I remembered the picture pried into the inserts. I wonder if you found it, I wonder if you discarded it, a 2” by 2” black-and-white photo taken for my father’s Indian voter card from the time his cheeks were full and could fit a banana broken in two. He always ate in a hurry as though programmed by a ticking clock that foresaw the cancer. I could imagine him preparing for this picture before the mirror: first, the taming of his wavy hair, then the snowfall of lavender powder on his cocoa skin, finally the approving pat on his shirt over a sumo stomach. In most pictures his smile feels practiced, except this one that I saved when we emptied the apartment. Here, he appears the way I want to remember him: natural to the point of being earthy, casual with his shirt open at the collar, eyes eager to return to a punchline or an inflection point in a conversation that I can never know now. I could imagine him perched on the edge of a white plastic chair, the kind you would find in Indian government offices, peppering the photographer with questions, regaling him with stories like failing the driving test five times. I’d saved the photograph for its radioactive lightness. Now, it was replaced with an infinite emptiness. This man had brought Achilles and Hercules to our lawn in Delhi, where they fought their demons in his raspy tobacco-soaked voice. Victory or defeat, his stories always wound their way to a party, with him as a guest feted with priceless gifts.

“Look at this present,” he pointed once to the steel watch on his wrist, “this is what I got.” I remember running my tiny fingers along the ridges of the strap, trying to find traces of divinity while mechanically gulping spoonful of mushy cornflakes. That was how he got me to finish breakfast before school. I had dreamed of taking him to the land of his heroes. You made sure he never left. On the bench in Syntagma, I laughed aloud. I was ready for a party.

Vimla Sriram is a Seattle-based writer, shaped by Delhi. This means banyans and parrots will try to sneak into her essays even if, especially if, she tries to steer clear of them. She loves the Pacific Northwest for its gigantic Douglas Firs, leaning Madronas, and oat lattes. Her writing appears or is forthcoming in 100 Word Story, Wanderlust, Stonecrop Journal, Little Patuxent Review, River Teeth Journal and The Cincinnati Review.

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Issue 19.1

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