According to an ancient Chinese legend, one day in the year 2640B.C. , Princess Si Ling-chi was sitting under a mulberry tree when a silkworm cocoon fell into her teacup. When she tried to remove it, she noticed that the cocoon had begun to unravel in the hot liquid. She handed the loose end to her maidservant and told her to walk. The servant went out of the princess’s chamber, and into the palace courtyard, and through the palace gates, and out of the Forbidden City, and into the countryside a half mile away before the cocoon ran out. (In the West, this legend would slowly mutate over three millennia, until it became the story of a physicist and an apple. Either way, the meanings are the same: great discoveries, whether of silk or of gravity, are always windfalls. They happen to people loafing under trees.)
I feel a little like that Chinese princess, whose discovery gave Desdemona her livelihood. Like her I unravel my story, and the longer the thread, the less there is left to tell. Retrace the filament and you go back to the cocoon’s beginning in a tiny knot, a first tentative loop. And following my story’s thread back to where I left off, I see theJean Bart dock in Athens. I see my grandparents on land again, making preparations for another voyage. Passports are placed into hands, vaccinations administered to upper arms. Another ship materializes at the dock, theGiulia . A foghorn sounds.
And look: from the deck of theGiulia something else unwinds now. Something multicolored, spinning itself out over the waters of Piraeus.
It was the custom in those days for passengers leaving for America to bring balls of yarn on deck. Relatives on the pier held the loose ends. As theGiulia blew its horn and moved away from the dock, a few hundred strings of yarn stretched across the water. People shouted farewells, waved furiously, held up babies for last looks they wouldn’t remember. Propellers churned; handkerchiefs fluttered, and, up on deck, the balls of yarn began to spin. Red, yellow, blue, green, they untangled toward the pier, slowly at first, one revolution every ten seconds, then faster and faster as the boat picked up speed. Passengers held the yarn as long as possible, maintaining the connection to the faces disappearing onshore. But finally, one by one, the balls ran out. The strings of yarn flew free, rising on the breeze.
From two separate locations on theGiulia ’s deck, Lefty and Desdemona—and I can say it now, finally, my grandparents—watched the airy blanket float away. Desdemona was standing between two air manifolds shaped like giant tubas. At midships Lefty slouched in a brace of bachelors. In the last three hours they hadn’t seen each other. That morning, they’d had coffee together in a café near the harbor after which, like professional spies, they’d picked up their separate suitcases—Desdemona keeping her silkworm box—and had departed in different directions. My grandmother was carrying falsified documents. Her passport, which the Greek government had granted under the condition that she leave the country immediately, bore her mother’s maiden name, Aristos, instead of Stephanides. She’d presented this passport along with her boarding card at the top of theGiulia ’s gangway. Then she’d gone aft, as planned, for the send-off.
At the shipping channel, the foghorn sounded again, as the boat came around to the west and picked up more speed. Dirndls, kerchiefs, and suit coats flapped in the breeze. A few hats flew off heads, to shouts and laughter. Yarn drift-netted the sky, barely visible now. People watched as long as they could. Desdemona was one of the first to go below. Lefty lingered on deck for another half hour. This, too, was part of the plan.
For the first day at sea, they didn’t speak to each other. They came up on deck at the appointed mealtimes and stood in separate lines. After eating, Lefty joined the men smoking at the rail while Desdemona hunched on deck with the women and children, staying out of the wind. “You have someone meeting you?” the women asked. “A fiancé?”
“No. Just my cousin in Detroit.”
“Traveling all by yourself?” the men asked Lefty.
“That’s right. Free and easy.”
At night, they descended to their respective compartments. In separate bunks of seaweed wrapped in burlap, with life vests doubling as pillows, they tried to sleep, to get used to the motion of the ship, and to tolerate the smells. Passengers had brought on board all manner of spices and sweetmeats, tinned sardines, octopus in wine sauce, legs of lamb preserved with garlic cloves. In those days you could identify a person’s nationality by smell. Lying on her back with eyes closed, Desdemona could detect the telltale oniony aroma of a Hungarian woman on her right, and the raw-meat smell of an Armenian on her left. (And they, in turn, could peg Desdemona as a Hellene by her aroma of garlic and yogurt.) Lefty’s annoyances were auditory as well as olfactory. To one side was a man named Callas with a snore like a miniature foghorn itself; on the other was Dr. Philobosian, who wept in his sleep. Ever since leaving Smyrna the doctor had been beside himself with grief. Racked, gut-socked, he lay curled up in his coat, blue around the eye sockets. He ate almost nothing. He refused to go up on deck to get fresh air. On the few occasions he did go, he threatened to throw himself overboard.
In Athens, Dr. Philobosian had told them to leave him alone. He refused to discuss plans about the future and said that he had no family anywhere. “My family’s gone. They murdered them.”
“Poor man,” Desdemona said. “He doesn’t want to live.”
“We have to help him,” Lefty insisted. “He gave me money. He bandaged my hand. Nobody else cared about us. We’ll take him with us.” While they waited for their cousin to wire money, Lefty tried to console the doctor and finally convinced him to come with them to Detroit. “Wherever’s far away,” said Dr. Philobosian. But now on the boat he talked only of death.
The voyage was supposed to take from twelve to fourteen days. Lefty and Desdemona had the schedule all worked out. On the second day at sea, directly after dinner, Lefty made a tour of the ship. He picked his way among the bodies sprawled across the steerage deck. He passed the stairway to the pilothouse and squeezed past the extra cargo, crates of Kalamata olives and olive oil, sea sponges from Kos. He proceeded forward, running his hand along the green tarps of the lifeboats, until he met the chain separating steerage from third class. In its heyday, theGiulia had been part of the Austro-Hungarian Line. Boasting modern conveniences (“lumina electrica, ventilatie et comfortu cel mai mare”), it had traveled once a month between Trieste and New York. Now the electric lights worked only in first class, and even then sporadically. The iron rails were rusted. Smoke from the stack had soiled the Greek flag. The boat smelled of old mop buckets and a history of nausea. Lefty didn’t have his sea legs yet. He kept falling against the railing. He stood at the chain for an appropriate amount of time, then crossed to port and returned aft. Desdemona, as arranged, was standing alone at the rail. As Lefty passed, he smiled and nodded. She nodded coldly and looked back out to sea.
On the third day, Lefty took another after-dinner stroll. He walked forward, crossed to port, and headed aft. He smiled at Desdemona and nodded again. This time, Desdemona smiled back. Rejoining his fellow smokers, Lefty inquired if any of them might happen to know the name of that young woman traveling alone.
On the fourth day out, Lefty stopped and introduced himself.
“So far the weather’s been good.”
“I hope it stays that way.”
“You’re traveling alone?”
“I am, too. Where are you going to in America?”
“What a coincidence! I’m going to Detroit, too.”
They stood chatting for another few minutes. Then Desdemona excused herself and went down below.
Rumors of the budding romance spread quickly through the ship. To pass the time, everybody was soon discussing how the tall young Greek with the elegant bearing had become enamored of the dark beauty who was never seen anywhere without her carved olivewood box. “They’re both traveling alone,” people said. “And they both have relatives in Detroit.”
“I don’t think they’re right for each other.”
“He’s a higher class than she is. It’ll never work.”
“He seems to like her, though.”
“He’s on a boat in the middle of the ocean! What else does he have to do?”
On the fifth day, Lefty and Desdemona took a stroll on deck together. On the sixth day, he presented his arm and she took it.
“I introduced them!” one man boasted. City girls sniffed. “She wears her hair in braids. She looks like a peasant.”
My grandfather, on the whole, came in for better treatment. He was said to have been a silk merchant from Smyrna who’d lost his fortune in the fire; a son of King Constantine I by a French mistress; a spy for the Kaiser during the Great War. Lefty never discouraged any speculation. He seized the opportunity of transatlantic travel to reinvent himself. He wrapped a ratty blanket over his shoulders like an opera cape. Aware that whatever happened now would become the truth, that whatever he seemed to be would become what he was—already an American, in other words—he waited for Desdemona to come up on deck. When she did, he adjusted his wrap, nodded to his shipmates, and sauntered across the deck to pay his respects.
“I don’t think so. Type like that, he’s just out for a little fun. That girl better watch it or she’ll have more than that box to carry around.”
My grandparents enjoyed their simulated courtship. When people were within earshot, they engaged in first- or second-date conversations, making up past histories for themselves. “So,” Lefty would ask, “do you have any siblings?”
“I had a brother,” Desdemona replied wistfully. “He ran off with a Turkish girl. My father disowned him.”
“That’s very strict. I think love breaks all taboos. Don’t you?”
Alone, they told each other, “I think it’s working. No one suspects.”
Each time Lefty encountered Desdemona on deck, he pretended he’d only recently met her. He walked up, made small talk, commented on the beauty of the sunset, and then, gallantly, segued into the beauty of her face. Desdemona played her part, too. She was standoffish at first. She withdrew her arm whenever he made an offcolor joke. She told him that her mother had warned her about men like him. They passed the voyage playing out this imaginary flirtation and, little by little, they began to believe it. They fabricated memories, improvised fate. (Why did they do it? Why did they go to all that trouble? Couldn’t they have said they were already engaged? Or that their marriage had been arranged years earlier? Yes, of course they could have. But it wasn’t the other travelers they were trying to fool; it was themselves.)
Traveling made it easier. Sailing across the ocean among half a thousand perfect strangers conveyed an anonymity in which my grandparents could recreate themselves. The driving spirit on theGiulia was self-transformation. Staring out to sea, tobacco farmers imagined themselves as race car drivers, silk dyers as Wall Street tycoons, millinery girls as fan dancers in theZiegfeld Follies . Gray ocean stretched in all directions. Europe and Asia Minor were dead behind them. Ahead lay America and new horizons.
On the eighth day at sea, Lefty Stephanides, grandly, on one knee, in full view of six hundred and sixty-three steerage passengers, proposed to Desdemona Aristos while she sat on a docking cleat. Young women held their breath. Married men nudged bachelors: “Pay attention and you’ll learn something.” My grandmother, displaying a theatrical flair akin to her hypochondria, registered complex emotions: surprise; initial delight; second thoughts; prudent near refusal; and then, to the applause already starting up, dizzy acceptance.
The ceremony took place on deck. In lieu of a wedding dress, Desdemona wore a borrowed silk shawl over her head. Captain Kontoulis loaned Lefty a necktie spotted with gravy stains. “Keep your coat buttoned and nobody will notice,” he said. Forstephana , my grandparents had wedding crowns woven with rope. Flowers weren’t available at sea and so thekoumbaros , a guy named Pelos serving as best man, switched the king’s hempen crown to the queen’s head, the queen’s to the king’s, and back again.
Bride and bridegroom performed the Dance of Isaiah. Hip to hip, arms interwoven to hold hands, Desdemona and Lefty circumambulated the captain, once, twice, and then again, spinning the cocoon of their life together. No patriarchal linearity here. We Greeks get married in circles, to impress upon ourselves the essential matrimonial facts: that to be happy you have to find variety in repetition; that to go forward you have to come back where you began.
Or, in my grandparents’ case, the circling worked like this: as they paced around the deck the first time, Lefty and Desdemona were still brother and sister. The second time, they were bride and bridegroom. And the third, they were husband and wife.
The night of my grandparents’ wedding, the sun set directly before the ship’s bow, pointing the way to New York. The moon rose, casting a silver stripe over the ocean. On his nightly tour of the deck, Captain Kontoulis descended from the pilothouse and marched forward. The wind had picked up. TheGiulia pitched in high seas. As the deck tilted back and forth, Captain Kontoulis didn’t stumble once, and was even able to light one of the Indonesian cigarettes he favored, dipping his cap’s braided brim to cut the wind. In his not terribly clean uniform, wearing knee-high Cretan boots, Captain Kontoulis scrutinized running lights, stacked deck chairs, lifeboats. TheGiulia was alone on the vast Atlantic, hatches battened down against swells crashing over the side. The decks were empty except for two first-class passengers, American businessmen sharing a nightcap under lap blankets. “From what I hear, Tilden doesn’t just play tennis with his protégés, if you get my drift.” “You’re kidding.” “Lets them drink from the loving cup.” Captain Kontoulis, understanding none of this, nodded as he passed . . .
Inside one of the lifeboats, Desdemona was saying, “Don’t look.” She was lying on her back. There was no goat’s-hair blanket between them, so Lefty covered his eyes with his hands, peeking through his fingers. A single pinhole in the tarp leaked moonlight, which slowly filled the lifeboat. Lefty had seen Desdemona undress many times, but usually as no more than a shadow and never in moonlight. She had never curled onto her back like this, lifting her feet to take off her shoes. He watched and, as she pulled down her skirt and lifted her tunic, was struck by how different his sister looked, in moonlight, in a lifeboat. Sheglowed . She gave off white light. He blinked behind his hands. The moonlight kept rising; it covered his neck, it reached his eyes until he understood: Desdemona was wearing a corset. That was the other thing she’d brought along: the white cloth enfolding her silkworm eggs was nothing other than Desdemona’s wedding corset. She thought she’d never wear it, but here it was. Brassiere cups pointed up at the canvas roof. Whalebone slats squeezed her waist. The corset’s skirt dropped garters attached to nothing because my grandmother owned no stockings. In the lifeboat, the corset absorbed all available moonlight, with the odd result that Desdemona’s face, head, and arms disappeared. She looked like Winged Victory, tumbled on her back, being carted off to a conqueror’s museum. All that was missing was the wings.
Lefty took off his shoes and socks, as grit rained down. When he removed his underwear, the lifeboat filled with a mushroomy smell. He was ashamed momentarily, but Desdemona didn’t seem to mind.
She was distracted by her own mixed feelings. The corset, of course, reminded Desdemona of her mother, and suddenly the wrongness of what they were doing assailed her. Until now she had been keeping it at bay. She had had no time to dwell on it in the chaos of the last days.
Lefty, too, was conflicted. Though he had been tortured by thoughts of Desdemona, he was glad for the darkness of the lifeboat, glad, in particular, that he couldn’t see her face. For months Lefty had slept with whores who resembled Desdemona, but now he found it easier to pretend that she was a stranger.
The corset seemed to possess its own sets of hands. One was softly rubbing her between the legs. Two more cupped her breasts, one, two, three hands pressing and caressing her; and in the lingerie Desdemona saw herself through new eyes, her thin waist, her plump thighs; she felt beautiful, desirable, most of all: not herself. She lifted her feet, rested her calves on the oarlocks. She spread her legs. She opened her arms for Lefty, who twisted around, chafing his knees and elbows, dislodging oars, nearly setting off a flare, until finally he fell into her softness, swooning. For the first time Desdemona tasted the flavor of his mouth, and the only sisterly thing she did during their lovemaking was to come up for air, once, to say, “Bad boy. You’ve done this before.” But Lefty only kept repeating, “Not like this, not like this . . .”
And I was wrong before, I take it back. Underneath Desdemona, beating time against the boards and lifting her up: a pair of wings.
“Lefty!” Desdemona now, breathlessly. “I think I felt it.”
“You know. Thatfeeling .”
“Newlyweds,” Captain Kontoulis said, watching the lifeboat rock. “Oh, to be young again.”
After Princess Si Ling-chi—whom I find myself picturing as the imperial version of the bicyclist I saw on the U-Bahn the other day; I can’t stop thinking about her for some reason, I keep looking for her every morning—after Princess Si Ling-chi discovered silk, her nation kept it a secret for three thousand one hundred and ninety years. Anyone who attempted to smuggle silkworm eggs out of China faced punishment of death. My family might never have become silk farmers if it hadn’t been for the Emperor Justinian, who, according to Procopius, persuaded two missionaries to risk it. In a.d. 550, the missionaries snuck silkworm eggs out of China in the swallowed condom of the time: a hollow staff. They also brought the seeds of the mulberry tree. As a result, Byzantium became a center for sericulture. Mulberry trees flourished on Turkish hillsides. Silkworms ate the leaves. Fourteen hundred years later, the descendants of those first stolen eggs filled my grandmother’s silkworm box on theGiulia .
I’m the descendant of a smuggling operation, too. Without their knowing, my grandparents, on their way to America, were each carrying a single mutated gene on the fifth chromosome. It wasn’t a recent mutation. According to Dr. Luce, the gene first appeared in my bloodline sometime around 1750, in the body of one Penelope Evangelatos, my great-grandmother to the ninth power. She passed it on to her son Petras, who passed it on to his two daughters, who passed it on to three of their five children, and so on and so on. Being recessive, its expression would have been fitful. Sporadic heredity is what the geneticists call it. A trait that goes underground for decades only to reappear when everyone has forgotten about it. That was how it went in Bithynios. Every so often a hermaphrodite was born, a seeming girl who, in growing up, proved otherwise.
For the next six nights, under various meteorological conditions, my grandparents trysted in the lifeboat. Desdemona’s guilt flared up during the day, when she sat on deck wondering if she and Lefty were to blame for everything, but by nighttime she felt lonely and wanted to escape the cabin and so stole back to the lifeboat and her new husband.
Their honeymoon proceeded in reverse. Instead of getting to know each other, becoming familiar with likes and dislikes, ticklish spots, pet peeves, Desdemona and Lefty tried to defamiliarize themselves with each other. In the spirit of their shipboard con game, they continued to spin out false histories for themselves, inventing brothers and sisters with plausible names, cousins with moral shortcomings, in-laws with facial tics. They took turns reciting Homeric genealogies, full of falsifications and borrowings from real life, and sometimes they fought over this or that favorite real uncle or aunt, and had to bargain like casting directors. Gradually, as the nights passed, these fictional relatives began to crystallize in their minds. They’d quiz each other on obscure connections, Lefty asking, “Who’s your second cousin Yiannis married to?” And Desdemona replying, “That’s easy. Athena. With the limp.” (And am I wrong to think that my obsession with family relations started right there in the lifeboat? Didn’t my mother quiz me on uncles and aunts and cousins, too? She never quizzed my brother, because he was in charge of snow shovels and tractors, whereas I was supposed to provide the feminine glue that keeps families together, writing thank-you notes and remembering everybody’s birthdays and name days. Listen, I’ve heard the following genealogy come out of my mother’s mouth: “That’s your cousin Melia. She’s Uncle Mike’s sister Lucille’s brother-in-law Stathis’s daughter. You know Stathis the mailman, who’s not too swift? Melia’s his third child, after his boys Mike and Johnny. You should know her. Melia! She’s your cousin-in-law by marriage!”)
And here I am now, sketching it all out for you, dutifully oozing feminine glue, but also with a dull pain in my chest, because I realize that genealogies tell you nothing. Tessie knew who was related to whom but she had no idea who her own husband was, or what her in-laws were to each other; the whole thing a fiction created in the lifeboat where my grandparents made up their lives.
Sexually, things were simple for them. Dr. Peter Luce, the great sexologist, can cite astonishing statistics asserting that oral sex didn’t exist between married couples prior to 1950. My grandparents’ lovemaking was pleasurable but unvarying. Every night Desdemona would disrobe down to her corset and Lefty would press its clasps and hooks, searching for the secret combination that sprung the locked garment open. The corset was all they needed in terms of an aphrodisiac, and it remained for my grandfather the singular erotic emblem of his life. The corset made Desdemona new again. As I said, Lefty had glimpsed his sister naked before, but the corset had the odd power of making her seem somehow more naked; it turned her into a forbidding, armored creature with a soft inside he had to hunt for. When the tumblers clicked, it popped open; Lefty crawled on top of Desdemona and the two of them hardly even moved; the ocean swells did the work for them.
Their periphescence existed simultaneously with a less passionate stage of pair bonding. Sex could give way, at any moment, to coziness. So, after making love, they lay staring up through the pulled-back tarp at the night sky passing overhead and got down to the business of life. “Maybe Lina’s husband can give me a job,” Lefty said. “He’s got his own business, right?”
“I don’t know what he does. Lina never gives me a straight answer.”
“After we save some money, I can open a casino. Some gambling, a bar, maybe a floor show. And potted palms everywhere.”
“You should go to college. Become a professor like Mother and Father wanted. And we have to build a cocoonery, remember.”
“Forget the silkworms. I’m talking roulette, rebetika, drinking, dancing. Maybe I’ll sell some hash on the side.”
“They won’t let you smoke hashish in America.”
And Desdemona announced with certitude:
“It’s not that kind of country.”
They spent what remained of their honeymoon on deck, learning how to finagle their way through Ellis Island. It wasn’t so easy anymore. The Immigration Restriction League had been formed in 1894. On the floor of the U.S. Senate, Henry Cabot Lodge thumped a copy ofOn the Origin of Species, warning that the influx of inferior peoples from southern and eastern Europe threatened “the very fabric of our race.” The Immigration Act of 1917 barred thirty-three kinds of undesirables from entering the United States, and so, in 1922, on the deck of theGiulia , passengers discussed how to escape the categories. In nervous cram sessions, illiterates learned to pretend to read; bigamists to admit to only one wife; anarchists to deny having read Proudhon; heart patients to simulate vigor; epileptics to deny their fits; and carriers of hereditary diseases to neglect mentioning them. My grandparents, unaware of their genetic mutation, concentrated on the more blatant disqualifications. Another category of restriction: “persons convicted of a crime or misdemeanor involving moral turpitude.” And a subset of this group: “Incestuous relations.”
They avoided passengers who seemed to be suffering from trachoma or favus. They fled anyone with a hacking cough. Occasionally, for reassurance, Lefty took out the certificate that declared: