When this story goes out into the world, I may become the most famous hermaphrodite in history. There have been others before me. Alexina Barbin attended a girls’ boarding school in France before becoming Abel. She left behind an autobiography, which Michel Foucault discovered in the archives of the French Department of Public Hygiene. (Her memoirs, which end shortly before her suicide, make unsatisfactory reading, and it was after finishing them years ago that I first got the idea to write my own.) Gottlieb Göttlich, born in 1798, lived as Marie Rosine until the age of thirty-three. One day abdominal pains sent Marie to the doctor. The physician checked for a hernia and found undescended testicles instead. From then on, Marie donned men’s clothes, took the name of Gottlieb, and made a fortune traveling around Europe, exhibiting himself to medical men.
As far as the doctors are concerned, I’m even better than Gottlieb. To the extent that fetal hormones affect brain chemistry and histology, I’ve got a male brain. But I was raised as a girl. If you were going to devise an experiment to measure the relative influences of nature versus nurture, you couldn’t come up with anything better than my life. During my time at the Clinic nearly three decades ago, Dr. Luce ran me through a barrage of tests. I was given the Benton Visual Retention Test and the Bender Visual-Motor Gestalt Test. My verbal IQ was measured, and lots of other things, too. Luce even analyzed my prose style to see if I wrote in a linear, masculine way, or in a circular, feminine one.
All I know is this: despite my androgenized brain, there’s an innate feminine circularity in the story I have to tell. In any genetic history. I’m the final clause in a periodic sentence, and that sentence begins a long time ago, in another language, and you have to read it from the beginning to get to the end, which is my arrival.
And so now, having been born, I’m going to rewind the film, so that my pink blanket flies off, my crib scoots across the floor as my umbilical cord reattaches, and I cry out as I’m sucked back between my mother’s legs. She gets really fat again. Then back some more as a spoon stops swinging and a thermometer goes back into its velvet case.Sputnik chases its rocket trail back to the launching pad and polio stalks the land. There’s a quick shot of my father as a twenty-year-old clarinetist, playing an Artie Shaw number into the phone, and then he’s in church, age eight, being scandalized by the price of candles; and next my grandfather is untaping his first U.S. dollar bill over a cash register in 1931. Then we’re out of America completely; we’re in the middle of the ocean, the sound track sounding funny in reverse. A steamship appears, and up on deck a lifeboat is curiously rocking; but then the boat docks, stern first, and we’re up on dry land again, where the film unspools, back at the beginning . . .
In the late summer of 1922, my grandmother Desdemona Stephanides wasn’t predicting births but deaths, specifically, her own. She was in her silkworm cocoonery, high on the slope of Mount Olympus in Asia Minor, when her heart, without warning, missed a beat. It was a distinct sensation: she felt her heart stop and squeeze into a ball. Then, as she stiffened, it began to race, thumping against her ribs. She let out a small, astonished cry. Her twenty thousand silkworms, sensitive to human emotion, stopped spinning cocoons. Squinting in the dim light, my grandmother looked down to see the front of her tunic visibly fluttering; and in that instant, as she recognized the insurrection inside her, Desdemona became what she’d remain for the rest of her life: a sick person imprisoned in a healthy body. Nevertheless, unable to believe in her own endurance, despite her already quieting heart, she stepped out of the cocoonery to take a last look at the world she wouldn’t be leaving for another fifty-eight years.
The view was impressive. A thousand feet below lay the old Ottoman capital of Bursa, like a backgammon board spread out across the valley’s green felt. Red diamonds of roof tile fit into diamonds of whitewash. Here and there, the sultans’ tombs were stacked up like bright chips. Back in 1922, automobile traffic didn’t clog the streets. Ski lifts didn’t cut swaths into the mountain’s pine forests. Metallurgic and textile plants didn’t ring the city, filling the air with smog. Bursa looked—at least from a thousand feet up—pretty much as it had for the past six centuries, a holy city, necropolis of the Ottomans and center of the silk trade, its quiet, declining streets abloom with minarets and cypress trees. The tiles of the Green Mosque had turned blue with age, but that was about it. Desdemona Stephanides, however, kibitzing from afar, gazed down on the board and saw what the players had missed.
To psychoanalyze my grandmother’s heart palpitations: they were the manifestations of grief. Her parents were dead—killed in the recent war with the Turks. The Greek Army, encouraged by the Allied Nations, had invaded western Turkey in 1919, reclaiming the ancient Greek territory in Asia Minor. After years of living apart up on the mountain, the people of Bithynios, my grandmother’s village, had emerged into the safety of theMegale Idea —the Big Idea, the dream of Greater Greece. It was now Greek troops who occupied Bursa. A Greek flag flew over the former Ottoman palace. The Turks and their leader, Mustafa Kemal, had retreated to Angora in the east. For the first time in their lives the Greeks of Asia Minor were out from under Turkish rule. No longer were the giaours (“infidel dogs”) forbidden to wear bright clothing or ride horses or use saddles. Never again, as in the last centuries, would Ottoman officials arrive in the village every year, carting off the strongest boys to serve in the Janissaries. Now, when the village men took silk to market in Bursa, they were free Greeks, in a free Greek city.
Desdemona, however, mourning her parents, was still imprisoned by the past. And so she stood on the mountain, looking down at the emancipated city, and felt cheated by her inability to feel happy like everybody else. Years later, in her widowhood, when she’d spend a decade in bed trying with great vitality to die, she would finally agree that those two years between wars a half century earlier had been the only decent time in her life; but by then everyone she’d known would be dead and she could only tell it to the television.
For the greater part of an hour Desdemona had been trying to ignore her foreboding by working in the cocoonery. She’d come out the back door of the house, through the sweet-smelling grape arbor, and across the terraced yard into the low, thatch-roofed hut. The acrid, larval smell inside didn’t bother her. The silkworm cocoonery was my grandmother’s own personal, reeking oasis. All around her, in a firmament, soft white silkworms clung to bundled mulberry twigs. Desdemona watched them spinning cocoons, moving their heads as though to music. As she watched, she forgot about the world outside, its changes and convulsions, its terrible new music (which is about to be sung in a moment). Instead she heard her mother, Euphrosyne Stephanides, speaking in this very cocoonery years ago, elucidating the mysteries of silkworms—“To have good silk, you have to be pure,” she used to tell her daughter. “The silkworms know everything. You can always tell what somebody is up to by the way their silk looks”—and so on, Euphrosyne giving examples—“Maria Poulos, who’s always lifting her skirt for everyone? Have you seen her cocoons? A stain for every man. You should look next time”—Desdemona only eleven or twelve and believing every word, so that now, as a young woman of twenty-one, she still couldn’t entirely disbelieve her mother’s morality tales, and examined the cocoon constellations for a sign of her own impurity (the dreams she’d been having!). She looked for other things, too, because her mother also maintained that silkworms reacted to historical atrocities. After every massacre, even in a village fifty miles away, the silkworms’ filaments turned the color of blood—“I’ve seen them bleed like the feet of Christos Himself,” Euphrosyne again, and her daughter, years later, remembering, squinting in the weak light to see if any cocoons had turned red. She pulled out a tray and shook it; she pulled out another; and it was right then that she felt her heart stop, squeeze into a ball, and begin punching her from inside. She dropped the tray, saw her tunic flutter from interior force, and understood that her heart operated on its own instructions, that she had no control over it or, indeed, over anything else.
So myyia yia , suffering the first of her imaginary diseases, stood looking down at Bursa, as though she might spot a visible confirmation of her invisible dread. And then it came from inside the house, by means of sound: her brother, Eleutherios (“Lefty”) Stephanides, had begun to sing. In badly pronounced, meaningless English:
“Ev’ry morning, ev’ry evening, ain’t we got fun,” Lefty sang, standing before their bedroom mirror as he did every afternoon about this time, fastening the new celluloid collar to the new white shirt, squeezing a dollop of hair pomade (smelling of limes) into his palm and rubbing it into his new Valentino haircut. And continuing: “In the meantime, in-between time, ain’t we got fun.” The lyrics meant nothing to him, either, but the melody was enough. It spoke to Lefty of jazz-age frivolity, gin cocktails, cigarette girls; it made him slick his hair back with panache . . . while, out in the yard, Desdemona heard the singing and reacted differently. For her, the song conjured only the disreputable bars her brother went to down in the city, those hash dens where they played rebetika and American music and where there were loose women who sang . . . as Lefty put on his new striped suit and folded the red pocket handkerchief that matched his red necktie . . . and she felt funny inside, especially her stomach, which was roiled by complicated emotions, sadness, anger, and something else she couldn’t name that hurt most of all. “The rent’s unpaid, dear, we haven’t a car,” Lefty crooned in the sweet tenor I would later inherit; and beneath the music Desdemona now heard her mother’s voice again, Euphrosyne Stephanides’ last words spoken just before she died from a bullet wound, “Take care of Lefty. Promise me. Find him a wife!” . . . and Desdemona, through her tears, replying, “I promise. I promise!” . . . these voices all speaking at once in Desdemona’s head as she crossed the yard to go into the house. She came through the small kitchen where she had dinner cooking (for one) and marched straight into the bedroom she shared with her brother. He was still singing—“Not much money, Oh! but honey”—fixing his cuff links, parting his hair; but then he looked up and saw his sister—“Ain’t we got”—and pianissimo now—“fun”—fell silent.
For a moment, the mirror held their two faces. At twenty-one, long before ill-fitting dentures and self-imposed invalidism, my grandmother was something of a beauty. She wore her black hair in long braids pinned up under her kerchief. These braids were not delicate like a little girl’s but heavy and womanly, possessing a natural power, like a beaver’s tail. Years, seasons, and various weather had gone into the braids; and when she undid them at night they fell to her waist. At present, black silk ribbons were tied around the braids, too, making them even more imposing, if you got to see them, which few people did. What was on view for general consumption was Desdemona’s face: her large, sorrowful eyes, her pale, candlelit complexion. I should also mention, with the vestigial pang of a once flat-chested girl, Desdemona’s voluptuous figure. Her body was a constant embarrassment to her. It was always announcing itself in ways she didn’t sanction. In church when she knelt, in the yard when she beat rugs, beneath the peach tree when she picked fruit, Desdemona’s feminine elaborations escaped the constraints of her drab, confining clothes. Above the jiggling of her body, her kerchief-framed face remained apart, looking slightly scandalized at what her breasts and hips were up to.
Eleutherios was taller and skinnier. In photographs from the time he looks like the underworld figures he idolized, the thin mustachioed thieves and gamblers who filled the seaside bars of Athens and Constantinople. His nose was aquiline, his eyes sharp, the overall impression of his face hawk-like. When he smiled, however, you saw the softness in his eyes, which made it clear that Lefty was in fact no gangster but the pampered, bookish son of comfortably well-off parents.
That summer afternoon in 1922, Desdemona wasn’t looking at her brother’s face. Instead her eyes moved to the suit coat, to the gleaming hair, to the striped trousers, as she tried to figure out what had happened to him these past few months.
Lefty was one year younger than Desdemona and she often wondered how she’d survived those first twelve months without him. For as long as she could remember he’d always been on the other side of the goat’s-hair blanket that separated their beds. Behind thekelimi he performed puppet shows, turning his hands into the clever, hunchbacked Karaghiozis who always outwitted the Turks. In the dark he made up rhymes and sang songs, and one of the reasons she hated his new American music was that he sang it exclusively to himself. Desdemona had always loved her brother as only a sister growing up on a mountain could love a brother: he was the whole entertainment, her best friend and confidant, her co-discoverer of short cuts and monks’ cells. Early on, the emotional sympathy she’d felt with Lefty had been so absolute that she’d sometimes forgotten they were separate people. As kids they’d scrabbled down the terraced mountainside like a four-legged, two-headed creature. She was accustomed to their Siamese shadow springing up against the whitewashed house at evening, and whenever she encountered her solitary outline, it seemed cut in half.
Peacetime seemed to be changing everything. Lefty had taken advantage of the new freedoms. In the last month he’d gone down to Bursa a total of seventeen times. On three occasions he’d stayed overnight in the Cocoon Inn across from the Mosque of Sultan Ouhan. He’d left one morning dressed in boots, knee socks, breeches,doulamas , and vest and come back the following evening in a striped suit, with a silk scarf tucked into his collar like an opera singer and a black derby on his head. There were other changes. He’d begun to teach himself French from a small, plum-colored phrase book. He’d picked up affected gestures, putting his hands in his pockets and rattling change, for instance, or doffing his cap. When Desdemona did the laundry, she found scraps of paper in Lefty’s pockets, covered with mathematical figures. His clothes smelled musky, smoky, and sometimes sweet.
Now, in the mirror, their joined faces couldn’t hide the fact of their growing separation. And my grandmother, whose constitutional gloom had broken out into full cardiac thunder, looked at her brother, as she once had her own shadow, and felt that something was missing.
“So where are you going all dressed up?”
“Where do you think I’m going? To the Koza Han. To sell cocoons.”
“You went yesterday.”
“It’s the season.”
With a tortoiseshell comb Lefty parted his hair on the right, adding pomade to an unruly curl that refused to stay flat.
Desdemona came closer. She picked up the pomade and sniffed it. It wasn’t the smell on his clothes. “What else do you do down there?”
“You stay all night sometimes.”
“It’s a long trip. By the time I walk there, it’s late.”
“What are you smoking in those bars?”
“Whatever’s in the hookah. It’s not polite to ask.”
“If Mother and Father knew you were smoking and drinking like this . . .” She trailed off.
“They don’t know, do they?” said Lefty. “So I’m safe.” His light tone was unconvincing. Lefty acted as though he had recovered from their parents’ deaths, but Desdemona saw through this. She smiled grimly at her brother and, without comment, held out her fist. Automatically, while still admiring himself in the mirror, Lefty made a fist, too. They counted, “One, two, three . . . shoot!”
“Rock crushes snake. I win,” said Desdemona. “So tell me.”
“Tell you what?”
“Tell me what’s so interesting in Bursa.”
Lefty combed his hair forward again and parted it on the left. He swiveled his head back and forth in the mirror. “Which looks better? Left or right?”
“Let me see.” Desdemona raised her hand delicately to Lefty’s hair—and mussed it.
“What do you want in Bursa?”
“Leave me alone.”
“You want to know?” Lefty said, exasperated with his sister now. “What do you think I want?” He spoke with pent-up force. “I want a woman.”
Desdemona gripped her belly, patted her heart. She took two steps backward and from this vantage point examined her brother anew. The idea that Lefty, who shared her eyes and eyebrows, who slept in the bed beside hers, could be possessed by such a desire had never occurred to Desdemona before. Though physically mature, Desdemona’s body was still a stranger to its owner. At night, in their bedroom, she’d seen her sleeping brother press against his rope mattress as though angry with it. As a child she’d come upon him in the cocoonery, innocently rubbing against a wooden post. But none of this had made an impression. “What are you doing?” she’d asked Lefty, eight or nine at the time, and gripping the post, moving his knees up and down. With a steady, determined voice, he’d answered, “I’m trying to get that feeling.”
“You know”—grunting, puffing, pumping knees—“thatfeeling .”
But she didn’t know. It was still years before Desdemona, cutting cucumbers, would lean against the corner of the kitchen table and, without realizing it, would lean in a little harder, and after that would find herself taking up that position every day, the table corner snug between her legs. Now, preparing her brother’s meals, she sometimes struck up her old acquaintance with the dining table, but she wasn’t conscious of it. It was her body that did it, with the cunning and silence of bodies everywhere.
Her brother’s trips to the city were different. He knew what he was looking for, apparently; he was in full communication with his body. His mind and body had become one entity, thinking one thought, bent on one obsession, and for the first time ever Desdemona couldn’t read that thought. All she knew was that it had nothing to do with her.
It made her mad. Also, I suspect, a little jealous. Wasn’t she his best friend? Hadn’t they always told each other everything? Didn’t she do everything for him, cook, sew, and keep house as their mother used to? Wasn’t she the one who had been taking care of the silkworms single-handedly so that he, her smart little brother, could take lessons from the priest, learning ancient Greek? Hadn’t she been the one to say, “You take care of the books, I’ll take care of the cocoonery. All you have to do is sell the cocoons at the market.” And when he had started lingering down in the city, had she complained? Had she mentioned the scraps of paper, or his red eyes, or the musky-sweet smell on his clothes? Desdemona had a suspicion that her dreamy brother had become a hashish smoker. Where there was rebetika music there was always hashish. Lefty was dealing with the loss of their parents in the only way he could, by disappearing in a cloud of hash smoke while listening to the absolutely saddest music in the world. Desdemona understood all this and so had said nothing. But now she saw that her brother was trying to escape his grief in a way she hadn’t expected; and she was no longer content to be quiet.
“You want a woman?” Desdemona asked in an incredulous voice. “What kind of woman? A Turkish woman?”
Lefty said nothing. After his outburst he had resumed combing his hair.
“Maybe you want a harem girl. Is that right? You think I don’t know about those types of loose girls, thosepoutanes ? Yes, I do. I’m not so stupid. You like a fat girl shaking her belly in your face? With a jewel in her fat belly? You want one of those? Let me tell you something. Do you know why those Turkish girls cover their faces? You think it’s because of religion? No. It’s because otherwise no one can stand to look at them!”
And now she shouted, “Shame on you, Eleutherios! What’s the matter with you? Why don’t you get a girl from the village?”
It was at this point that Lefty, who was now brushing off his jacket, called his sister’s attention to something she was overlooking. “Maybe you haven’t noticed,” he said, “but there aren’t any girls in this village.”
Which, in fact, was pretty much the case. Bithynios had never been a big village, but in 1922 it was smaller than ever. People had begun leaving in 1913, when the phylloxera blight ruined the currants. They had continued to leave during the Balkan Wars. Lefty and Desdemona’s cousin, Sourmelina, had gone to America and was living now in a place called Detroit. Built along a gentle slope of the mountain, Bithynios wasn’t a precarious, cliffside sort of place. It was an elegant, or at least harmonious, cluster of yellow stucco houses with red roofs. The grandest houses, of which there were two, hadçikma , enclosed bay windows that hung out over the street. The poorest houses, of which there were many, were essentially one-room kitchens. And then there were houses like Desdemona and Lefty’s, with an overstuffed parlor, two bedrooms, a kitchen, and a backyard privy with a European toilet. There were no shops in Bithynios, no post office or bank, only a church and one taverna. For shopping you had to go into Bursa, walking first and then taking the horse-drawn streetcar.
In 1922 there were barely a hundred people living in the village. Fewer than half of those were women. Of forty-seven women, twenty-one were old ladies. Another twenty were middle-aged wives. Three were young mothers, each with a daughter in diapers. One was his sister. That left two marriageable girls. Whom Desdemona now rushed to nominate.
“What do you mean there aren’t any girls? What about Lucille Kafkalis? She’s a nice girl. Or Victoria Pappas?”
“Lucille smells,” Lefty answered reasonably. “She bathes maybe once a year. On her name day. And Victoria?” He ran a finger over his upper lip. “Victoria has a mustache bigger than mine. I don’t want to share a razor with my wife.” With that, he put down his clothing brush and put on his jacket. “Don’t wait up,” he said, and left the bedroom.
“Go!” Desdemona called after him. “See what I care. Just remember. When your Turkish wife takes off her mask, don’t come running back to the village!”
But Lefty was gone. His footsteps faded away. Desdemona felt the mysterious poison rising in her blood again. She paid no attention. “I don’t like eating alone!” she shouted, to no one.
The wind from the valley had picked up, as it did every afternoon. It blew through the open windows of the house. It rattled the latch on her hope chest and her father’s old worry beads lying on top. Desdemona picked the beads up. She began to slip them one by one through her fingers, exactly as her father had done, and her grandfather, and her great-grandfather, performing a family legacy of precise, codified, thorough worrying. As the beads clicked together, Desdemona gave herself up to them. What was the matter with God? Why had He taken her parents and left her to worry about her brother? What was she supposed to do with him? “Smoking, drinking, and now worse! And where does he get the money for all his foolishness? From my cocoons, that’s how!” Each bead slipping through her fingers was another resentment recorded and released. Desdemona, with her sad eyes, her face of a girl forced to grow up too fast, worried with her beads like all the Stephanides men before and after her (right down to me, if I count).
She went to the window and put her head out, heard the wind rustling in the pine trees and the white birch. She kept counting her worry beads and, little by little, they did their job. She felt better. She decided to go on with her life. Lefty wouldn’t come back tonight. Who cared? Who needed him anyway? It would be easier for her if he never came back. But she owed it to her mother to see that he didn’t catch some shameful disease or, worse, run off with a Turkish girl. The beads continued to drop, one by one, through Desdemona’s hands. But she was no longer counting her pains. Instead, the beads now summoned to her mind images in a magazine hidden in their father’s old desk. One bead was a hairstyle. The next bead was a silk slip. The next was a black brassiere. My grandmother had begun to matchmake.
Lefty, meanwhile, carrying a sack of cocoons, was on his way down the mountain. When he reached the city, he came down Kapali Carsi Caddesi, turned at Borsa Sokak, and soon was passing through the arch into the courtyard of the Koza Han. Inside, around the aquamarine fountain, hundreds of stiff, waist-high sacks foamed over with silkworm cocoons. Men crowded everywhere, either selling or buying. They had been shouting since the opening bell at ten that morning and their voices were hoarse. “Good price! Good quality!” Lefty squeezed through the narrow paths between the cocoons, holding his own sack. He had never had any interest in the family livelihood. He couldn’t judge silkworm cocoons by feeling or sniffing them as his sister could. The only reason he brought the cocoons to market was that women were not allowed. The jostling, the bumping of porters and sidestepping of sacks made him tense. He thought how nice it would be if everyone would just stop moving a moment, if they would stand still to admire the luminosity of the cocoons in the evening light; but of course no one ever did. They went on yelling and thrusting cocoons in one another’s faces and lying and haggling. Lefty’s father had loved market season at the Koza Han, but the mercantile impulse hadn’t been passed down to his son.
Near the covered portico Lefty saw a merchant he knew. He presented his sack. The merchant reached deep into it and brought out a cocoon. He dipped it into a bowl of water and then examined it. Then he dipped it into a cup of wine.
“I need to make organzine from these. They’re not strong enough.”
Lefty didn’t believe this. Desdemona’s silk was always the best. He knew that he was supposed to shout, to act offended, to pretend to take his business elsewhere. But he had gotten such a late start; the closing bell was about to sound. His father had always told him not to bring cocoons late in the day because then you had to sell them at a discount. Lefty’s skin prickled under his new suit. He wanted the transaction to be over. He was filled with embarrassment: embarrassment for the human race, its preoccupation with money, its love of swindle. Without protest he accepted the man’s price. As soon as the deal was completed he hurried out of the Koza Han to attend to his real business in town.
It wasn’t what Desdemona thought. Watch closely: Lefty, setting his derby at a rakish angle, walks down the sloping streets of Bursa. When he passes a coffee kiosk, however, he doesn’t go in. The proprietor hails him, but Lefty only waves. In the next street he passes a window behind whose shutters female voices call out, but he pays no attention, following the meandering streets past fruit sellers and restaurants until he reaches another street where he enters a church. More precisely: a former mosque, with minaret torn down and Koranic inscriptions plastered over to provide a fresh canvas for the Christian saints that are, even now, being painted on the interior. Lefty hands a coin to the old lady selling candles, lights one, stands it upright in sand. He takes a seat in a back pew. And in the same way my mother will later pray for guidance over my conception, Lefty Stephanides, my great-uncle (among other things) gazes up at the unfinished Christ Pantocrator on the ceiling. His prayer begins with words he learned as a child,Kyrie eleison, Kyrie eleison, I am not worthy to come before Thy throne , but soon it veers off, becoming personal withI don’t know why I feel this way, it’s not natural . . . and then turning a little accusatory, prayingYou made me this way, I didn’t ask to think things like . . . but getting abject finally withGive me strength, Christos, don’t let me be this way, if she even knew . . . eyes squeezed shut, hands bending the derby’s brim, the words drifting up with the incense toward a Christ-in-progress.
He prayed for five minutes. Then came out, replaced his hat on his head, and rattled the change in his pockets. He climbed back up the sloping streets and, this time (his heart unburdened), stopped at all the places he’d resisted on his way down. He stepped into a kiosk for coffee and a smoke. He went to a café for a glass of ouzo. The backgammon players shouted, “Hey, Valentino, how about a game?” He let himself get cajoled into playing, just one, then lost and had to go double or nothing. (The calculations Desdemona found in Lefty’s pants pockets were gambling debts.) The night wore on. The ouzo kept flowing. The musicians arrived and the rebetika began. They played songs about lust, death, prison, and life on the street. “At the hash den on the seashore, where I’d go every day,” Lefty sang along, “Every morning, bright and early, to chase the blues away; I ran into two harem girls sitting on the sand; Quite stoned the poor things were, and they were really looking grand.” Meanwhile, the hookah was being filled. By midnight, Lefty came floating back onto the streets.
An alley descends, turns, dead-ends. A door opens. A face smiles, beckoning. The next thing Lefty knows, he’s sharing a sofa with three Greek soldiers, looking across at seven plump, perfumed women sharing two sofas opposite. (A phonograph plays the hit song that’s playing everywhere: “Ev’ry morning, ev’ry evening . . .”) And now his recent prayer is forgotten completely because as the madam says, “Anyone you like, sweetheart,” Lefty’s eyes pass over the blond, blue-eyed Circassian, and the Armenian girl suggestively eating a peach, and the Mongolian with the bangs; his eyes keep scanning to fix on a quiet girl at the end of the far couch, a sad-eyed girl with perfect skin and black hair in braids. (“There’s a scabbard for every dagger,” the madam says in Turkish as the whores laugh.) Unconscious of the workings of his attraction, Lefty stands up, smooths his jacket, holds out his hand toward his choice . . . and only as she leads him up the stairs does a voice in his head point out how this girl comes up to exactly where . . . and isn’t her profile just like . . . but now they’ve reached the room with its unclean sheets, its blood-colored oil lamp, its smell of rose water and dirty feet. In the intoxication of his young senses Lefty doesn’t pay attention to the growing similarities the girl’s disrobing reveals. His eyes take in the large breasts, the slim waist, the hair cascading down to the defenseless coccyx; but Lefty doesn’t make connections. The girl fills a hookah for him. Soon he drifts off, no longer hearing the voice in his head. In the soft hashish dream of the ensuing hours, he loses sense of who he is and who he’s with. The limbs of the prostitute become those of another woman. A few times he calls out a name, but by then he is too stoned to notice. Only later, showing him out, does the girl bring him back to reality. “By the way, I’m Irini. We don’t have a Desdemona here.”
The next morning he awoke at the Cocoon Inn, awash in recriminations. He left the city and climbed back up the mountain to Bithynios. His pockets (empty) made no sound. Hung over and feverish, Lefty told himself that his sister was right: it was time for him to get married. He would marry Lucille, or Victoria. He would have children and stop going down to Bursa and little by little he’d change; he’d get older; everything he felt now would fade into memory and then into nothing. He nodded his head; he fixed his hat.
Back in Bithynios, Desdemona was giving those two beginners finishing lessons. While Lefty was still sleeping it off at the Cocoon Inn, she invited Lucille Kafkalis and Victoria Pappas over to the house. The girls were even younger than Desdemona, still living at home with their parents. They looked up to Desdemona as the mistress of her own home. Envious of her beauty, they gazed admiringly at her; flattered by her attentions, they confided in her; and when she began to give them advice on their looks, they listened. She told Lucille to wash more regularly and suggested she use vinegar under her arms as an antiperspirant. She sent Victoria to a Turkish woman who specialized in removing unwanted hair. Over the next week, Desdemona taught the girls everything she’d learned from the only beauty magazine she’d ever seen, a tattered catalogue calledLingerie Parisienne. The catalogue had belonged to her father. It contained thirty-two pages of photographs showing models wearing brassieres, corsets, garter belts, and stockings. At night, when everyone was sleeping, her father used to take it out of the bottom drawer of his desk. Now Desdemona studied the catalogue in secret, memorizing the pictures so that she could re-create them later.
She told Lucille and Victoria to stop by every afternoon. They walked into the house, swaying their hips as instructed, and passed through the grape arbor where Lefty liked to read. They wore a different dress each time. They also changed their hairstyles, walks, jewelry, and mannerisms. Under Desdemona’s direction, the two drab girls multiplied themselves into a small city of women, each with a signature laugh, a personal gemstone, a favorite song she hummed. After two weeks, Desdemona went out to the grape arbor one afternoon and asked her brother, “What are you doing here? Why aren’t you down in Bursa? I thought you’d have found a nice Turkish girl to marry by now. Or do they all have mustaches like Victoria’s?”
“Funny you should mention that,” Lefty said. “Have you noticed? Vicky doesn’t have a mustache anymore. And do you know what else?”—getting up now, smiling—“even Lucille’s starting to smell okay. Every time she comes over, I smell flowers.” (He was lying, of course. Neither girl looked or smelled more appealing to him than before. His enthusiasm was only his way of giving in to the inevitable: an arranged marriage, domesticity, children—the complete disaster.) He came up close to Desdemona. “You were right,” he said. “The most beautiful girls in the world are right here in this village.”
She looked shyly back up into his eyes. “You think so?”
“Sometimes you don’t even notice what’s right under your nose.”
They stood gazing at each other, as Desdemona’s stomach began to feel funny again. And to explain the sensation I have to tell you another story. In his presidential address at the annual convention of the Society for the Scientific Study of Sexuality in 1968 (held that year in Mazatlán among lots of suggestive piñatas), Dr. Luce introduced the concept of “periphescence.” The word itself means nothing; Luce made it up to avoid any etymological associations. The state of periphescence, however, is well known. It denotes the first fever of human pair bonding. It causes giddiness, elation, a tickling on the chest wall, the urge to climb a balcony on the rope of the beloved’s hair. Periphescence denotes the initial drugged and happy bedtime where you sniff your lover like a scented poppy for hours running. (It lasts, Luce explained, up to two years—tops.) The ancients would have explained what Desdemona was feeling as the workings of Eros. Now expert opinion would put it down to brain chemistry and evolution. Still, I have to insist: to Desdemona periphescence felt like a lake of warmth flooding up from her abdomen and across her chest. It spread like the 180-proof, fiery flood of a mint-green Finnish liqueur. With the pumping of two efficient glands in her neck, it heated her face. And then the warmth got other ideas and started spreading into places a girl like Desdemona didn’t allow it to go, and she broke off the stare and turned away. She walked to the window, leaving the periphescence behind, and the breeze from the valley cooled her down. “I will speak to the girls’ parents,” she said, trying to sound like her mother. “Then you must go pay court.”
The next night, the moon, like Turkey’s future flag, was a crescent. Down in Bursa the Greek troops scrounged for food, caroused, and shot up another mosque. In Angora, Mustafa Kemal let it be printed in the newspaper that he would be holding a tea at Chankaya while in actuality he’d left for his headquarters in the field. With his men, he drank the last raki he’d take until the battle was over. Under cover of night, Turkish troops moved not north toward Eskisşehir, as everyone expected, but to the heavily fortified city of Afyon in the south. At Eskisşehir, Turkish troops lit campfires to exaggerate their strength. A small diversionary force feinted northward toward Bursa. And, amid these deployments, Lefty Stephanides, carrying two corsages, stepped out the front door of his house and began walking to the house where Victoria Pappas lived.
It was an event on the level of a birth or a death. Each of the nearly hundred citizens of Bithynios had heard about Lefty’s upcoming visits, and the old widows, the married women, and the young mothers, as well as the old men, were waiting to see which girl he would choose. Because of the small population, the old courting rituals had nearly ceased. This lack of romantic possibility had created a vicious cycle. No one to love: no love. No love: no babies. No babies: no one to love.
Victoria Pappas stood half in and half out of the light, the shading across her body exactly that of the photograph on page 8 ofLingerie Parisienne. Desdemona (costume lady, stage manager, and director all in one) had pinned up Victoria’s hair, letting ringlets fall over her forehead and warning her to keep her biggish nose in shadow. Perfumed, depilated, moist with emollients, wearing kohl around her eyes, Victoria let Lefty look upon her. She felt the heat of his gaze, heard his heavy breathing, heard him try to speak twice—small squeaks from a dry throat—and then she heard his feet coming toward her, and she turned, making the face Desdemona had taught her; but she was so distracted by the effort to pout her lips like the French lingerie model that she didn’t realize the footsteps weren’t approaching but retreating; and she turned to see that Lefty Stephanides, the only eligible bachelor in town, had taken off . . .
. . . Meanwhile, back at home, Desdemona opened her hope chest. She reached in and pulled out her own corset. Her mother had given it to her years ago in expectation of her wedding night, saying, “I hope you fill this out someday.” Now, before the bedroom mirror, Desdemona held the strange, complicated garment against herself. Down went her knee socks, her gray underwear. Off came her high-waisted skirt, her high-collared tunic. She shook off her kerchief and unbraided her hair so that it fell over her bare shoulders. The corset was made of white silk. As she put it on, Desdemona felt as though she were spinning her own cocoon, awaiting metamorphosis.
But when she looked in the mirror again, she caught herself. It was no use. She would never get married. Lefty would come back tonight having chosen a bride, and then he would bring her home to live with them. Desdemona would stay where she was, clicking her beads and growing even older than she already felt. A dog howled. Someone in the village kicked over a bundle of sticks and cursed. And my grandmother wept silently because she was going to spend the rest of her days counting worries that never went away . . .
. . . While in the meantime Lucille Kafkalis was standing exactly as she’d been told, half in and half out of the light, wearing a white hat sashed with glass cherries, a mantilla over bare shoulders, a bright green, décolleté dress, and high heels, in which she didn’t move for fear of falling. Her fat mother waddled in, grinning and shouting, “Here he comes! Even one minute he couldn’t stay with Victoria!” . . .
. . . Already he could smell the vinegar. Lefty had just entered the low doorway of the Kafkalis house. Lucille’s father welcomed him, then said, “We’ll leave you two alone. To get acquainted.” The parents left. It was dim in the room. Lefty turned . . . and dropped another corsage.
What Desdemona hadn’t anticipated: her brother, too, had pored over the pages ofLingerie Parisienne. In fact, he’d done it from the time he turned twelve to the time he turned fourteen, when he discovered the real loot: ten postcard-sized photographs, hidden in an old suitcase, showing “Sermin, Girl of the Pleasure Dome,” in which a bored, pear-shaped twenty-five-year-old assumed a variety of positions on the tasseled pillows of a staged seraglio. Finding her in the toiletries pocket was like rubbing a genie’s lamp. Up she swirled in a plume of shining dust: wearing nothing but a pair of Arabian Nights slippers and a sash around her waist (flash); lying languidly on a tiger skin, fondling a scimitar (flash); and bathing, lattice-lit, at a marble hammam. Those ten sepia-toned photographs were what had started Lefty’s fascination with the city. But he had never entirely forgotten his first loves inLingerie Parisienne. He could summon them in his imagination at will. When he had seen Victoria Pappas looking like page 8, what had struck Lefty most acutely was the distance between her and his boyhood ideal. He tried to imagine himself married to Victoria, living with her, but every image that came to mind had a gaping emptiness at the center, the lack of the person he loved more and knew better than any other. And so he had fled from Victoria Pappas to come down the street and find Lucille Kafkalis, just as disappointingly, failing to live up to page 22 . . .
. . . And now it happens. Desdemona, weeping, takes off the corset, folds it back up, and returns it to the hope chest. She throws herself on the bed, Lefty’s bed, to continue crying. The pillow smells of his lime pomade and she breathes it in, sobbing . . .
. . . until, drugged by weeping’s opiates, she falls asleep. She dreams the dream she’s been having lately. In the dream everything’s the way it used to be. She and Lefty are children again (except they have adult bodies). They’re lying in the same bed (except now it’s their parents’ bed). They shift their limbs in sleep (and it feels extremely nice, how they shift, and the bed is wet) . . . at which point Desdemona wakes up, as usual. Her face is hot. Her stomach feels funny, way deep down, and she can almost name the feeling now . . .
. . . As I sit here in my Aeron chair, thinking E. O. Wilson thoughts. Was it love or reproduction? Chance or destiny? Crime or nature at work? Maybe the gene contained an override, ensuring its expression, which would explain Desdemona’s tears and Lefty’s taste in prostitutes; not fondness, not emotional sympathy; only the need for this new thing to enter the world and hence the heart’s rigged game. But I can’t explain it, any more than Desdemona or Lefty could have, any more than each one of us, falling in love, can separate the hormonal from what feels divine, and maybe I cling to the God business out of some altruism hard-wired to preserve the species; I can’t say. I try to go back in my mind to a time before genetics, before everyone was in the habit of saying about everything, “It’s in the genes.” A time before our present freedom, and so much freer! Desdemona had no idea what was happening. She didn’t envision her insides as a vast computer code, all 1s and 0s, an infinity of sequences, any one of which might contain a bug. Now we know we carry this map of ourselves around. Even as we stand on the street corner, it dictates our destiny. It brings onto our faces the same wrinkles and age spots our parents had. It makes us sniff in idiosyncratic, recognizable family ways. Genes embedded so deep they control our eye muscles, so that two sisters have that same way of blinking, and boy twins dribble in unison. I feel myself sometimes, in anxious moods, playing with the cartilage of my nose exactly as my brother does. Our throats and voice boxes, formed from the same instructions, press air out in similar tones and decibels. And this can be extrapolated backward in time, so that when I speak, Desdemona speaks, too. She’s writing these words now. Desdemona, who had no idea of the army inside her, carrying out its million orders, or of the one soldier who disobeyed, going AWOL . . .
. . . Running like Lefty away from Lucille Kafkalis and back to his sister. She heard his feet hurrying as she was refastening her skirt. She wiped her eyes with her kerchief and put a smile on as he came through the door.
“So, which one did you choose?”
Lefty said nothing, inspecting his sister. He hadn’t shared a bedroom with her all his life not to be able to tell when she’d been crying. Her hair was loose, covering most of her face, but the eyes that looked up at him were brimming with feeling. “Neither one,” he said.
At that Desdemona felt tremendous happiness. But she said, “What’s the matter with you? You have to choose.”
“Those girls look like a couple of whores.”
“You don’t want to marry them?”
“You have to.” She held out her fist. “If I win, you marry Lucille.”
Lefty, who could never resist a bet, made a fist himself. “One, two, three . . . shoot!
“Ax breaks rock,” Lefty said. “I win.”
“Again,” said Desdemona. “This time, if I win, you marry Vicky. One, two, three . . .”
“Snake swallows ax. I win again! So long to Vicky.”
“Then who will you marry?”
“I don’t know”—taking her hands and looking down at her. “How about you?”
“Too bad I’m your sister.”
“You’re not only my sister. You’re my third cousin, too. Third cousins can marry.”
“You’re crazy, Lefty.”
“This way will be easier. We won’t have to rearrange the house.”
Joking but not joking, Desdemona and Lefty embraced. At first they just hugged in the standard way, but after ten seconds the hug began to change; certain positions of the hands and strokings of the fingers weren’t the usual displays of sibling affection, and these things constituted a language of their own, announced a whole new message in the silent room. Lefty began waltzing Desdemona around, European-style; he waltzed her outside, across the yard, over to the cocoonery, and back under the grape arbor, and she laughed and covered her mouth with her hand. “You’re a good dancer, cousin,” she said, and her heart jumped again, making her think she might die right then and there in Lefty’s arms, but of course she didn’t; they danced on. And let’s not forget where they were dancing, in Bithynios, that mountain village where cousins sometimes married third cousins and everyone was somehow related; so that as they danced, they started holding each other more tightly, stopped joking, and then just danced together, as a man and a woman, in lonely and pressing circumstances, might sometimes do.
And in the middle of this, before anything had been said outright or any decisions made (before fire would make those decisions for them), right then, mid-waltz, they heard explosions in the distance, and looked down to see, in firelight, the Greek Army in full retreat.
AN IMMODEST PROPOSAL