Iwaited three days before calling Julie again. It was ten o’clock at night and she was still in her studio working. She hadn’t eaten, so I suggested we get something. I said I’d come by and pick her up.
This time, she let me in. Her studio was a mess, frightening in its chaos, but after the first few steps I forgot about all that. My attention was arrested by what I saw on the walls. Five or six large test prints were tacked up, each one showing the industrial landscape of a chemical plant. Julie had shot the factory from a crane, so that the effect for the viewer was of floating just above the snaking pipes and smokestacks.
“Okay, that’s enough,” she said, pushing me toward the door.
“Hold on,” I said. “I love factories. I’m from Detroit. This is like an Ansel Adams for me.”
“Now you’ve seen it,” she said, shooing me out, pleased, uncomfortable, smiling, stubborn.
“I’ve got a Bernd and Hilla Becher in my living room,” I boasted.
“You’ve got a Bernd and Hilla Becher?” She stopped pushing me.
“It’s an old cement factory.”
“Okay, all right,” said Julie, relenting. “I do factories. That’s what I do. Factories. These are the I. G. Farben plant.” She winced. “I’m worried it’s the typical thing for an American to do over here.”
“Holocaust industry, you mean?”
“I haven’t read that book, but yeah.”
“If you’ve always done factories, I think it’s different,” I told her. “Then you’re not just glomming on. If factories are your subject, how could younot do I. G. Farben.”
“You think it’s okay?”
I pointed to the test prints. “These are great.”
We fell silent, looking at each other, and without thinking I leaned forward and kissed Julie lightly on the lips.
When the kiss was over she opened her eyes very wide. “I thought you were gay when we met,” she said.
“Must have been the suit.”
“My gaydar went off completely.” Julie was shaking her head. “I’m always suspicious, being the last stop.”
“The last what?”
“Haven’t you ever heard of that? Asian chicks are the last stop. If a guy’s in the closet, he goes for an Asian because their bodies are more like boys’.”
“Your body’s not like a boy’s,” I said.
This embarrassed Julie. She looked away.
“You’ve had a lot of closeted gay guys go after you?” I asked her.
“Twice in college, three times in graduate school,” answered Julie.
There was no other response to this but to kiss her again.
To resume my parents’ story, I need to bring up a very embarrassing memory for a Greek American: Michael Dukakis on his tank. Do you remember that? The single image that doomed our hopes of getting a Greek into the White House: Dukakis, wearing an oversize army helmet, bouncing along on top of an M41 Walker Bulldog. Trying to look presidential but looking instead like a little boy on an amusement park ride. (Every time a Greek gets near the Oval Office something goes wrong. First it was Agnew with the tax evasion and then it was Dukakis with the tank.) Before Dukakis climbed up on that armored vehicle, before he took off his J. Press suit and put on those army fatigues, we all felt—I speak for my fellow Greek Americans, whether they want me to or not—a sense of exultation. This man was the Democratic nominee for President of the United States! He was from Massachusetts, like the Kennedys! He practiced a religion even stranger than Catholicism, but no one was bringing it up. This was 1988. Maybe the time had finally come when anyone—or at least not the same old someones—could be President. Behold the banners at the Democratic Convention! Look at the bumper stickers on all the Volvos. “Dukakis.” A name with more than two vowels in it running for President! The last time that had happened was Eisenhower (who looked good on a tank). Generally speaking, Americans like their presidents to have no more than two vowels. Truman. Johnson. Nixon. Clinton. If they have more than two vowels (Reagan), they can have no more than two syllables. Even better is one syllable and one vowel: Bush. Had to do that twice. Why did Mario Cuomo decide against running for President? What conclusion did he come to as he withdrew to think the matter through? Unlike Michael Dukakis, who was from academic Massachusetts, Mario Cuomo was from New York and knew what was what. Cuomo knew he’d never win. Too liberal for the moment, certainly. But also: too many vowels.
On top of a tank, Michael Dukakis rode toward a bank of photographers and into the political sunset. Painful as the image is to recall, I bring it up for a reason. More than anything, that was what my newly enlisted father, Seaman 2nd Class Milton Stephanides, looked like as he bounced in a landing craft off the California coast in the fall of 1944. Like Dukakis, Milton was mostly helmet. Like Dukakis’s, Milton’s chin strap looked as though it had been fastened by his mother. Like Dukakis’s, Milton’s expression betrayed a creeping awareness of error. Milton, too, couldn’t get off his moving vehicle. He, too, was riding toward extinction. The only difference was the absence of photographers because it was the middle of the night.
A month after joining the United States Navy, Milton found himself stationed at Coronado naval base in San Diego. He was a member of the Amphibious Forces, whose job it was to transport troops to the Far East and assist their storming of beaches. It was Milton’s job—luckily so far only in maneuvers—to lower the landing craft off the side of the transport ship. For over a month, six days a week, ten hours a day, that’s what he’d been doing—lowering boats full of men into various sea conditions.
When he wasn’t lowering landing craft, he was in one himself. Three or four nights a week, they had to practice night landings. These were extremely tricky. The coast around Coronado was treacherous. The inexperienced pilots had trouble steering toward the diff lights, which marked the beaches, and often brought the boats to shore on the rocks.
Though the army helmet obscured Milton’s present vision, it gave him a pretty good picture of the future. The helmet weighed as much as a bowling ball. It was as thick as the hood of a car. You put it over your head, like a hat, but it was nothing like a hat. In contact with the skull, an army helmet transmitted images directly into the brain. These were of objects the helmet was designed to keep out. Bullets, for instance. And shrapnel. The helmet closed off the mind for contemplation of these essential realities.
And if you were a person like my father, you began to think about how you could escape such realities. After a single week of drills, Milton realized that he had made a terrible mistake joining the Navy. Battle could be only slightly less dangerous than this preparation for it. Every night someone got injured. Waves slammed guys up against the boats. Guys fell and got swept underneath. The week before, a kid from Omaha had drowned.
During the day they trained, playing football on the beach in army boots to build up their legs, and then at night they had the drills. Exhausted, seasick, Milton stood packed in like a sardine, shouldering a heavy pack. He had always wanted to be an American and now he got to see what his fellow Americans were like. In close quarters he suffered their backwoods lubricity and knucklehead talk. They were in the boats for hours together, getting slammed around, getting wet. They got to bed at three or four in the morning. Then the sun came up and it was time to do it all over again.
Why had he joined the Navy? For revenge, for escape. He wanted to get back at Tessie and he wanted to forget her. Neither had worked. The dullness of military life, the endless repetition of duties, the standing in line to eat, to use the bathroom, to shave, served as no distraction at all. Standing in line all day brought on the very thoughts Milton wanted to avoid, of a clarinet imprint, like a ring of fire, on Tessie’s flushed thigh. Or of Vandenbrock, the kid from Omaha who’d drowned: his battered face, the seawater leaking through his busted teeth.
All around Milton in the boat now guys were already getting sick. Ten minutes in the swells and sailors were bending over and regurgitating the beef stew and instant mashed potatoes of that evening’s dinner onto the ridged metal floor. This provoked no comment. The vomit, which was an eerie blue color in the moonlight, had its own wave action, sloshing back and forth over everybody’s boots. Milton lifted his face, trying to get a whiff of fresh air.
The boat pitched and rolled. It fell off waves and came crashing down, the hull shuddering. They were getting close to shore, where the surf picked up. The other men readjusted their packs and got ready for the make-believe assault, and Seaman Stephanides abandoned the solitude of his helmet.
“Saw it in the library,” the sailor beside him was saying to another. “On the bulletin board.”
“What kind of test?”
“Some kind of admittance exam. For Annapolis.”
“Yeah, right, they’re gonna let a couple of guys like us into Annapolis.”
“Doesn’t matter if they let us in or not. Deal is, whoever takes the test gets excused from drills.”
“What did you say about a test?” Milton asked, butting in.
The sailor looked around to see if anyone else had heard. “Keep quiet about it. If we all sign up, it won’t work.”
“When is it?”
But before the sailor could answer there was a loud, grinding sound: they had hit the rocks again. The sudden stop knocked everyone forward. Helmets rang against one another; noses broke. Sailors fell into a pile and the front hatch fell away. Water was streaming into the boat now and the lieutenant was yelling. Milton, along with everyone else, leapt into the confusion—the black rocks, the sucking undertow, the Mexican beer bottles, the startled crabs.
Back in Detroit, also in the dark, my mother was at the movies. Michael Antoniou, her fiancé, had returned to Holy Cross and now she had her Saturdays free. On the screen of the Esquire theater, numerals flashed . . . 5 . . . 4 . . . 3 . . . and a newsreel began. Muted trumpets blared. An announcer began giving war reports. It had been the same announcer throughout the war, so that by now Tessie felt she knew him; he was almost family. Week after week he had informed her about Monty and the Brits driving Rommel’s tanks out of North Africa and the American troops liberating Algeria and landing in Sicily. Munching popcorn, Tessie had watched as the months and years passed. The newsreels followed an itinerary. At first they’d concentrated on Europe. There were tanks rolling through tiny villages and French girls waving handkerchiefs from balconies. The French girls didn’t look like they’d been through a war; they wore pretty, ruffled skirts, white ankle socks, and silk scarves. None of the men wore berets, which surprised Tessie. She’d always wanted to go to Europe, not to Greece so much, but to France or Italy. As she watched these newsreels, what Tessie noticed wasn’t the bombed-out buildings but the sidewalk cafés, the fountains, the self-composed, urbane little dogs.
Two Saturdays ago, she’d seen Antwerp and Brussels liberated by the Allies. Now, as attention turned toward Japan, the scenery was changing. Palm trees cropped up in the newsreels, and tropical islands. This afternoon the screen gave the date “October 1944” and the announcer announced,As American troops prepare for the final invasion of the Pacific, General Douglas MacArthur, vowing to make good on his promise of “I shall return,” surveys his troops. The footage showed sailors standing at attention on deck, or dropping artillery shells into guns, or horsing around on a beach, waving to the folks back home. And out in the audience my mother found herself doing a crazy thing. She was looking for Milton’s face.
Hewas her second cousin, wasn’t he? It was only natural she should worry about him. They had also been, not in love exactly, but in something more immature, a kind of infatuation or crush. Nothing like what she had with Michael. Tessie sat up in her seat. She adjusted her purse in her lap. She sat up like a young lady who was engaged to be married. But after the newsreel ended and the movie began, she forgot about being an adult. She sank down in her seat and put her feet up over the seat in front.
Maybe it wasn’t a very good movie that day, or maybe she’d seen too many movies lately—she’d gone for the last eight straight days—but whatever the reason, Tessie couldn’t concentrate. She kept thinking that if something happened to Milton, if he was wounded or, God forbid, if he didn’t come back—she would be somehow to blame. She hadn’t told him to enlist in the Navy. If he’d asked her, she would have told him not to. But she knew he’d done it because of her. It was a little likeInto the Sands , with Claude Barron, which she’d seen a couple of weeks ago. In that picture Claude Barron enlists in the Foreign Legion because Rita Carrol marries another guy. The other guy turns out to be a cheater and drinker, and so Rita Carrol leaves him and travels out to the desert where Claude Barron is fighting the Arabs. By the time Rita Carrol gets there he’s in the hospital, wounded, or not a hospital really but just a tent, and she tells him she loves him and Claude Barron says, “I went into the desert to forget about you. But the sand was the color of your hair. The desert sky was the color of your eyes. There was nowhere I could go that wouldn’t be you.” And then he dies. Tessie cried buckets. Her mascara ran, staining the collar of her blouse something awful.
Drilling at night and going to Saturday matinees, jumping into the sea and sliding down in movie seats, worrying and regretting and hoping and trying to forget—nevertheless, to be perfectly honest, mostly what people did during the war was write letters. In support of my personal belief that real life doesn’t live up to writing about it, the members of my family seem to have spent most of their time that year engaged in correspondence. From Holy Cross, Michael Antoniou wrote twice a week to his fiancée. His letters arrived in light blue envelopes embossed with the head of Patriarch Benjamin in the upper left-hand corner, and on the stationery inside, his handwriting, like his voice, was feminine and neat. “Most likely, the first place they’ll send us after my ordination will be somewhere in Greece. There’s going to be a lot of rebuilding to do now that the Nazis have left.”
At her desk beneath the Shakespeare bookends, Tessie wrote back faithfully, if not entirely truthfully. Most of her daily activities didn’t seem virtuous enough to tell a seminarian-fiancé. And so she began to invent a more appropriate life for herself. “This morning Zo and I went down to volunteer at the Red Cross,” wrote my mother, who had spent the entire day at the Fox Theater, eating nonpareils. “They had us cut up old bedsheets into strips for bandages. You should see the blister I’ve got on my thumb. It’s a real whopper.” She didn’t start out with these wholesale fictions. At first Tessie had given an honest accounting of her days. But in one letter Michael Antoniou had said, “Movies are fine as entertainment, but with the war I wonder if they’re the best way to spend your time.” After that, Tessie started making things up. She rationalized her lying by telling herself that this was her last year of freedom. By next summer she’d be a priest’s wife, living somewhere in Greece. To mitigate her dishonesty, she deflected all honor from herself, filling her letters with praise for Zoë. “She works six days a week but on Sundays gets up bright and early to take Mrs. Tsontakis to church—poor thing’s ninety-three and can barely walk. That’s Zoë. Always thinking of others.”
Meanwhile, Desdemona and Milton were writing to each other, too. Before going off to war, my father had promised his mother that he’d finally become literate in Greek. Now, from California, lying on his bunk in the evenings, so sore he could barely move, Milton consulted a Greek-English dictionary to piece together reports on his navy life. No matter how hard he concentrated, however, by the time his letters arrived at Hurlbut Street something had been lost in translation.
“What kind of paper this is?” Desdemona asked her husband, holding up a letter that resembled Swiss cheese. Like mice, military censors had nibbled at Milton’s letters before Desdemona got to digest them. They bit off any mention of the word “invasion,” any reference to “San Diego” or “Coronado.” They chewed through whole paragraphs describing the naval base, the destroyers and submarines docked at the pier. Since the censors’ Greek was even worse than Milton’s, they often made mistakes, lopping off endearments, x’s and o’s.
Despite the gaps in Milton’s missives (syntactical and physical), my grandmother registered the danger of his situation. In his badly penned sigmas and deltas she spied the shaking hand of her son’s growing anxiety. Over his grammatical mistakes she detected the note of fear in his voice. The stationery itself frightened her because it already looked blown to bits.
Seaman Stephanides, however, was doing his best to prevent injury. On a Wednesday morning, he reported to the base library to take the admittance exam for the U.S. Naval Academy. Over the next five hours, every time he looked up from his test paper, he saw his shipmates doing calisthenics in the hot sun. He couldn’t help smiling. While his buddies were baking out there, Milton was sitting under a ceiling fan, working out a mathematical proof. While they were forced to run up and down the sandy gridiron, Milton was reading a paragraph by someone named Carlyle and answering the questions that followed. And tonight, when they would be getting creamed against the rocks, he would be snug in his bunk, fast asleep.
By the time the early months of 1945 rolled in, everyone was looking for exemptions from duty. My mother hid from charitable works by going to the movies. My father ducked maneuvers by taking a test. But when it came to exemptions, my grandmother sought one from nothing less than heaven itself.
One Sunday in March, she arrived at Assumption before the Divine Liturgy had started. Going into a niche, she approached the icon of St. Christopher and proposed a deal. “Please, St. Christopher,” Desdemona kissed her fingertips and touched them to the saint’s forehead, “if you keep Miltie safe in the war, I will make him promise to go back to Bithynios and fix the church.” She looked up at St. Christopher, the martyr of Asia Minor. “If the Turks destroyed it, Miltie will build it again. If it only needs painting, he’ll paint.” St. Christopher was a giant. He held a staff and forded a rushing river. On his back was the Christ Child, the heaviest baby in history because he had the world in his hands. What better saint to protect her own son, in peril on the sea? In the shadowy, lamplit space, Desdemona prayed. She moved her lips, spelling out the conditions. “I would also like, if possible, St. Christopher, if Miltie he could be excused from the training. He tells me it is very dangerous. He’s writing to me in Greek now, too, St. Christopher. Not too good but okay. I also make him promise to put in the church new pews. Also, if you like, some carpets.” She lapsed into silence, closing her eyelids. She crossed herself numerous times, waiting for an answer. Then her spine suddenly straightened. She opened her eyes, nodded, smiled. She kissed her fingertips and touched them to the saint’s picture, and she hurried home to write Milton the good news.
“Yeah, sure,” my father said when he got the letter. “St. Christopher to the rescue.” He slipped the letter into his Greek-English dictionary and carried both to the incinerator behind the Quonset hut. (That was the end of my father’s Greek lessons. Though he continued to speak Greek to his parents, Milton never succeeded in writing it, and as he got older he began to forget what even the simplest words meant. In the end he couldn’t say much more than Chapter Eleven or me, which was almost nothing at all.)
Milton’s sarcasm was understandable under the circumstances. Only the day before, his C.O. had given Milton a new assignment in the upcoming invasion. The news, like all bad news, hadn’t registered at first. It was as if the C.O.’s words, the actual syllables he addressed to Milton, had been scrambled by the boys over in Intelligence. Milton had saluted and walked out. He’d continued down to the beach still unaffected, the bad news acting with a kind of discretion, allowing him these last few peaceful, deluded moments. He watched the sunset. He admired a neutral Switzerland of seals out on the rocks. He took off his boots to feel the sand against his feet, as if the world were a place he was only beginning to live in instead of somewhere he would soon be leaving. But then the fissures appeared. A split in the top of his skull, through which the bad news hissingly poured; a groove in his knees, which buckled, and suddenly Milton couldn’t keep it out any longer.
Thirty-eight seconds. That was the news.
“Stephanides, we’re switching you over to signalman. Report to Building B at 0700 hours tomorrow morning. Dismissed.” That was what the C.O. had said. Only that. And it was no surprise, really. As the invasion neared, there had been a sudden rash of injuries to signalmen. Signalmen had been chopping off fingers doing KP duty. Signalmen had been shooting themselves in the feet while cleaning their guns. In the nighttime drills, signalmen lustily flung themselves onto the rocks.
Thirty-eight seconds was the life expectancy of a signalman. When the landing took place, Seaman Stephanides would stand in the front of the boat. He would operate a sort of lantern, flashing signals in Morse code. This lantern would be bright, clearly visible to enemy positions onshore. That was what he was thinking about as he stood on the beach with his boots off. He was thinking that he would never take over his father’s bar. He was thinking that he would never see Tessie again. Instead, a few weeks from now, he would stand up in a boat, exposed to hostile fire, holding a bright light. For a little while, at least.
Not included in the News of the World: a shot of my father’s AKA transport ship leaving Coronado naval base, heading west. At the Esquire Theater, holding her feet off the sticky floor, Tessie Zizmo watches as white arrows arc across the Pacific.The U.S. Naval Twelfth Fleet forges ahead on its invasion of the Pacific, the announcer says.Final destination: Japan . One arrow starts out in Australia, moving through New Guinea toward the Philippines. Another arrow shoots out from the Solomon Islands and another from the Marianas. Tessie has never heard of these places before. But now the arrows continue on, advancing toward other islands she’s never heard of—Iwo Jima, Okinawa—each flagged with the Rising Sun. The arrows converge from three directions on Japan, which is just a bunch of islands itself. As Tessie is getting the geography straight, the newsreel breaks into filmed footage. A hand cranks an alarm bell; sailors jump out of bunks, double-time it up stairways, assuming battle stations. And then there he is—Milton—running across the deck of the ship! Tessie recognizes his skinny chest, his raccoon eyes. She forgets about the floor and puts her feet down. In the newsreel the destroyer’s guns fire without sound and, half a world away, amid the elegance of an old-fashioned cinema, Tessie Zizmo feels the recoils. The theater is about half-full, mostly with young women like her. They, too, are snacking on candies for emotional reasons; they, too, are searching the grainy newsreel for the faces of fiancés. The air smells of Tootsie Pops and perfume and of the cigarette the usher is smoking in the lobby. Most of the time the war is an abstract event, happening somewhere else. Only here, for four or five minutes, squeezed between the cartoon and the feature, does it become concrete. Maybe the blurring of identity, the mob release, has an effect on Tessie, inspiring the kind of hysteria Sinatra does. Whatever the reason, in the bedroom light of the movie theater Tessie Zizmo allows herself to remember things she’s been trying to forget: a clarinet nosing its way up her bare leg like an invading force itself, tracing an arrow to her own island empire, an empire which, she realizes at that moment, she is giving up to the wrong man. While the flickering beam of the movie projector slants through the darkness over her head, Tessie admits to herself that she doesn’t want to marry Michael Antoniou. She doesn’t want to be a priest’s wife or move to Greece. As she gazes at Milton in the newsreel, her eyes fill with tears and she says out loud, “There was nowhere I could go that wouldn’t be you.”
And while people shush her, the sailor in the newsreel approaches the camera—and Tessie realizes that it isn’t Milton. It doesn’t matter, however. She has seen what she has seen. She gets up to leave.
On Hurlbut Street that same afternoon, Desdemona was lying in bed. She had been there for the last three days, ever since the mailman had delivered another letter from Milton. The letter wasn’t in Greek but English and Lefty had to translate:
This is the last letter I’ll be able to send you. (Sorry for not writing in the native tongue, ma, but I’m a little busy at the moment.) The brass won’t let me say much about what’s going on, but I just wanted to drop you this note to tell you not to worry about me. I’m headed to a safe place. Keep the bar in good shape, Pop. This war’ll be over some day and I want in on the family business. Tell Zo to stay out of my room.
Love and laughs,
Unlike the previous letters, this one arrived intact. Not a single hole anywhere. At first this had cheered Desdemona until she realized what it implied. There was no need for secrecy anymore. The invasion was already under way.
“God has brought the judgment down on us that we deserve,” she said.
She went into the living room, where she straightened a sofa cushion in passing, and climbed the stairs to the bedroom. There she undressed and put on her nightgown, even though it was only ten in the morning. And then, for the first time since being pregnant with Zoë and the last time before climbing in forever twenty-five years later, my grandmother took to her bed.
For three days she had stayed there, getting up only to go to the bathroom. My grandfather had tried in vain to coax her out. When he left for work the third morning, he had brought up some food, a dish of white beans in tomato sauce and bread.
The meal was still lying untouched on the bedside table when there came a knock at the front door. Desdemona did not get up to answer it but only pulled a pillow over her face. Despite this muffling, she heard the knocking continue. A little later, the front door opened, and finally footsteps made their way up the stairs and into her room.
“Aunt Des?” Tessie said.
Desdemona did not move.
“I’ve got something to tell you,” Tessie continued. “I wanted you to be the first to know.”
The figure in the bed remained motionless. Still, the alertness that had seized Desdemona’s body told Tessie that she was awake and listening. Tessie took a breath and announced, “I’m going to call off the wedding.”
There was a silence. Slowly Desdemona pulled the pillow off her face. She reached for her glasses on the bedside table, put them on, and sat up in bed. “You don’t want to marry Mikey?”
“Mikey is a good Greek boy.”
“I know he is. But I don’t love him. I love Milton.”
Tessie expected Desdemona to react with shock or outrage, but to her surprise my grandmother barely seemed to register the confession. “You don’t know this, but Milton asked me to marry him a while ago. I said no. Now I’m going to write him and say yes.”
Desdemona gave a little shrug. “You can write what you want, honeymou . Miltie he won’t get it.”
“It’s not illegal or anything. First cousins can marry even. We’re only second cousins. Milton went and looked up all the statutes.”
Once again Desdemona shrugged. Drained by worry, abandoned by St. Christopher, she stopped fighting an eventuality that had never been fated in the first place. “If you and Miltie want to get married, you have my blessing,” she said. Then, having given her benediction, she settled back into her pillows and closed her eyes to the pain of living. “And may God grant that you never have a child who dies in the ocean.”
In my family, the funeral meats have always furnished the wedding tables. My grandmother agreed to marry my grandfather because she never thought she’d live to see the wedding. And my grandmother blessed my parents’ marriage, after vigorously plotting against it, only because she didn’t think Milton would survive to the end of the week.
At sea, my father didn’t think so either. Standing at the bow of the transport ship, he stared out over the water at his fast-approaching end. He wasn’t tempted to pray or to settle his accounts with God. He perceived the infinite before him but didn’t warm it up with human wishing. The infinite was as vast and cold as the ocean spreading around the ship, and in all that emptiness what Milton felt most acutely was the reality of his own buzzing mind. Somewhere out over the water was the bullet that would end his life. Maybe it was already loaded in the Japanese gun from which it would be fired; maybe it was in an ammunition roll. He was twenty-one, oily-skinned, prominent about the Adam’s apple. It occurred to him that he had been stupid to run off to war because of a girl, but then he took this back, because it wasn’t just some girl; it was Theodora. As her face appeared in Milton’s mind, a sailor tapped him on the back.
“Who do you know in Washington?”
He handed my father a transfer, effective immediately. He was to report to the Naval Academy at Annapolis. On the admissions test, Milton had scored a ninety-eight.
Every Greek drama needs a deus ex machina. Mine comes in the form of the bosun’s chair that picked my father off the deck of the AKA transport ship and whisked him through the air to deposit him on the deck of a destroyer heading back to the U.S. mainland. From San Francisco he traveled by elegant Pullman car to Annapolis, where he was enrolled as a cadet.
“I tell you St. Christopher get you out of the war,” Desdemona exulted when he called home with the news.
“He sure did.”
“Now you have to fix the church.”
“The church. You have to fix it.”
“Sure, sure,” Naval Cadet Stephanides said, and maybe he even intended to. He was grateful to be alive and to have his future back. But with one thing or another, Milton would put off his trip to Bithynios. Within a year’s time he was married; later, he was a father. The war ended. He graduated from Annapolis and served in the Korean War. Eventually he returned to Detroit and went into the family business. From time to time Desdemona would remind her son about his outstanding obligation to St. Christopher, but my father always found an excuse for not fulfilling it. His procrastination would have disastrous effects, if you believe in that sort of thing, which, some days, when the old Greek blood is running high, I do.
My parents were married in June of 1946. In a show of generosity, Michael Antoniou attended the wedding. An ordained priest now, he presented a dignified, benevolent figure, but by the second hour of the reception it was clear he was crushed. He drank too much champagne at dinner and, when the band began playing, sought out the next best thing to the bride: the bridesmaid, Zoë Stephanides.
Zoë looked down at him—about a foot. He asked her to dance. The next thing she knew, they had started off across the ballroom floor.
“Tessie told me a lot about you in her letters,” said Michael Antoniou.
“Nothing too bad, I hope.”
“Just the opposite. She told me what a good Christian you are.”
His long robe concealed his small feet, making it difficult for Zoë to follow. Nearby, Tessie was dancing with Milton in his white naval uniform. As the couples passed each other, Zoë glared comically at Tessie and mouthed the words, “I’m going to kill you.” But then Milton twirled Tessie around and the two rivals came face-to-face.
“Hey there, Mike,” said Milton cordially.
“It’s Father Mike now,” said the vanquished suitor.
“Got a promotion, eh? Congratulations. I guess I can trust you with my sister.”
He danced away with Tessie, who looked back in silent apology. Zoë, who knew how infuriating her brother could be, felt sorry for Father Mike. She suggested they get some wedding cake.