By Nick Shadowen
Of course I don’t know how much of this story is true, and some parts are quite frankly hard to believe, but I heard it from a Spaniard named Javier, a guy I bunked with in a hostel in Belgium, and I can’t see any reason why he’d lie.
Nam Yu-Jin and her younger brother fled North Korea after their father, a government official, picked the wrong side on a consequential issue of some sort and was executed by firing squad. No one knows why they chose to settle in Sofia, Bulgaria, but once there Yu-Jin changed her name to Milena Androvic and found work as a cocktail waitress at a nightclub. After a year or so the brother, whom she’d never been particularly close to, said he was heading off to England and she never saw him again. Then one slow night at the club she met a man named Christophe who said he was abroad on business and she believed him because he wore a tailored suit and expensive shoes and his eyes were well rested, though it was well past midnight. Christophe said he was in the computer business: he updated software programs for various Bulgarian tech companies. Milena was poor and naive and that night they made love in Christophe’s four-star hotel room. He was in Sofia for the week and he visited her every night at the club—he brought chocolates and pink tulips—and took her to dinner at nice restaurants around the city. He bought her a new dress, black with satin lace. He asked if she’d like to return to Athens with him. She didn’t hesitate.
Things were good at first. Christophe was away during the day and because he made enough money Milena didn’t need to work, even though she offered to. As long as she stayed with him, Christophe said, she’d never have to work again. After he left in the morning she took long walks around the city and read magazines and watched soap operas on television. It was lonely but she knew she was happy, or at least content, and in her opinion there wasn’t much difference. When Christophe returned in the evening they would listen to Simon and Garfunkel and get stoned and have dinner and then make love.
And then one rainy night Christophe came home with another woman. Milena was watching a late night comedy show and they were poking fun at the new austerity measures decreed by Germany and then there they were in the doorway, Christophe and a young girl, looking at her and smiling as if they were embarrassed. This is Alexandra, Christophe said and slapped the girl’s behind, which was larger and rounder than Milena’s. Then they went into the bedroom and closed the door and Milena sat there looking at the television for a few minutes and then she began to cry, silently, but not for very long, and soon she fell asleep on the couch.
Milena never said a word to Christophe about that night and he never brought Alexandra around again, at least not while she was home, though from time to time she did find things like hair clips or scrunchies and once, a used condom in the toilet.
On a muggy morning in early spring, as Milena was showering, the police knocked at the apartment door. Or at least they said they were police. They weren’t wearing uniforms and they spoke rudely but they had badges and guns. Christophe Marangakis is dead, one of them told Milena, and the others began drifting into the apartment. She just stood there in her towel, hair dripping wet, and said nothing. Then they started going through everything—dresser, kitchen drawers, bookshelf, closet. One of them even took a knife and cut up the couch cushions. Milena asked what they were looking for but they just glared at her and then one of them winked. A tall thin man with a scar across his left cheek took her aside from the others and whispered in her ear. Tell us where it is, he said, and we’ll pretend like you’ve got papers. His breath smelled like peppermint. What do you mean? said Milena. We’ll pretend, he said, like you’re here legally. She said she didn’t know what he was talking about and then he slapped her hard across the face and knocked her to the floor. He waited for her to stand back up and when she did he grabbed her by the shoulders and squinted his eyes and said, this is the last time I’m asking. Where, the, fuck, is, it? Where is what? Milena said. The fucking money, you slut, he said. By this time the other men had satisfied themselves, it was a small apartment, and all she could do anyway was repeat that she didn’t know. And so they left.
A few days later several more men came, this time wearing uniforms. They put Milena in a car and took her in for questioning. In the car she said she didn’t know anything about the money and that she’d already told the others and had nothing more to say. The officers looked at each other sideways and didn’t seem to know what she was talking about. They brought her into the interrogation room and sat her down in a little metal chair behind a wide empty table, just like in the movies, and they asked her some questions: who she was, what she was doing in Athens, how she met Christophe, things like that. She told them. Then she asked why she was there. Christophe Marangakis, said the interrogator across the desk from her, was found shot to death on the side of the highway. Milena said nothing. He was a drug envoy, one of the officers added. Milena asked what that meant. In simple terms, he said, he was a low-level player in an organization that brought most of the heroin into Europe. Milena’s throat was dry and she asked for some water and the officer brought her a small cup but she didn’t touch it. The interrogator then explained, though Milena hadn’t asked, that the drugs made their way from Afghanistan to Turkey to Greece and then to Bulgaria, where they were treated and packaged and sold to various organizations that, in turn, distributed them to surrounding countries. All Milena could do was listen and repeat that she knew nothing about it and for whatever reason they seemed to believe her, or pretended to. They told her she had one month to leave the country or else she would be arrested and deported. Then they took her fingerprints and let her go.
Things only got worse from there. Christophe’s apartment belonged to his wife—another well-kept secret—and Milena found herself on the street. She didn’t know anyone in the city and she didn’t have anywhere to go. She thought of going back to Bulgaria but she realized she didn’t have a reason to, and didn’t have enough money anyway.
Athens had an air of desperation about it then. The majority of Greeks were unemployed, unless they worked in hotels or sold trinkets in the tourist areas, and they spent their days hanging about the parks and cafes, reading newspapers, drinking and talking, waiting for something to change, waiting for something to happen. Fascist youth roamed the streets at night beating up African or Middle-eastern immigrants who they claimed were responsible for the country’s troubles. It was a hot summer and an almost overwhelming sense of doom hung heavy in the air. Milena felt as if the sun and the earth were about to collide.
Then she remembered that she did know someone, a friend of Christophe’s whom she’d met one night at a seafood restaurant in the Plaka district. His name was Dimitris and Christophe had introduced him as his longtime friend and banker. She bought some minutes on her cell phone and dialed his number. No answer. But then several seconds later her phone rang and it was him. He remembered her immediately and seemed to have been expecting her call. He listened patiently as she explained her situation and when she had finished he told her, in a calm and simple voice, not to worry, that he knew a man who was always hiring. And then he was quiet for a moment and she was quiet too. What’s the job? she asked finally. Whatever he needs you to do, Dmitris said. There was nothing more to say so she thanked him. Don’t mention it, he said, and then he hung up and they never spoke again.
And that’s how Milena came to work for Giorgios Kostopoulos. Giorgios was a good man and he treated his whores like daughters. He paid them well, listened to their problems, and took care of them. You might say that he was more of a father to them than their fathers had been. Before the Second World War he’d been a shoe cobbler in Thessaloniki and when the Germans invaded both he and his wife joined the resistance, she as a spy and he as saboteur. They were captured and sent to concentration camps. Giorgios was sent to Buchenwald and she was sent somewhere else, he never found out where.
Milena was Giorgios’s favorite and all the other girls were jealous. He let her live in the apartment, rent-free, above the Hollywood Bar (which he owned), just across the street from the Acropolis.
One day, a few months after Milena moved in, Giorgios was walking the streets around the Roman Agora, dressed in his favorite beige blazer and khakis (even though it was summer), dangling an ivory handled walking stick for an extra touch of elegance, when he spotted a young man getting off the bus. The young man was rather gaunt in the face and his messy dark hair looked as if he’d just gotten out of bed. He was carrying a big blue backpack and seemed lost. Giorgios pegged him for an American, sat down on a nearby bench, and opened up a newspaper. He pretended to read for a few moments and then, as the young man was walking past him, pointed to his bare wrist as if to ask for the time. The young man took out his phone and gave him the time in English. Oh, you’re American? Giorgios said, and they fell into conversation. Giorgios got up to walk beside him and as they walked he spoke of the many wonderful sites of Athens, a good hostel he knew nearby, and the proud history of the Greek people. The young American, who was travelling alone, seemed to enjoy the old man’s company and began to ask Giorgios questions of his own. I don’t remember the young American’s name, so let’s call him A. It was a very hot day (is there any other kind in Athens?) and Giorgios suggested they stop at a nearby bar for a drink. A accepted and Giorgios took him to the Hollywood Bar and asked if he’d ever had an ouzo and orange juice, a very refreshing drink, he told A. A had just arrived in Greece and naturally had never had an ouzo and orange juice before so he ordered one. At this point Giorgios excused himself to visit the restroom and A began chatting to the bar maid, who on this day happened to be Milena. She smiled at A and set his drink down in front of him and asked what brought him to Athens. A said he wasn’t sure, gave some cryptic answer, and it was clear he really didn’t know why he was there. Milena asked him his name. A, said A, and then Milena asked if he was staying in the city or visiting the islands and A said that he planned to stay in Athens for a few days and then take a ferry to Poros. And what will you do there? Milena asked. A took a long sip of ouzo and looked down and said he would probably lay out in the sun and read and try to do some writing. What kind of writing? asked Milena. Poetry, said A. Milena smiled and put her hand on top of his and said she’d like to read one of his poems. A looked at her as if he was trying to remember something and then he took a little notebook from his pocket and set it down on the bar and said, go ahead. Milena opened it at random to a long, rather pretentious poem about Mexico City and a girl in a cathedral but she pretended she was impressed and told A she liked it and asked if he wrote anything else besides poetry. Science fiction stories, A said, sometimes detective stories. Milena asked where he was from and he said he was from South Dakota, or someplace like that, but for some reason I don’t believe that and I don’t think Milena did either. Milena asked A if he wouldn’t mind buying her a drink while they continued their chat and A, who no doubt grew up in a nice and polite middle-class family, white picket fence and little-league baseball and all that, said sure, of course. Milena made herself a drink and A asked her what kind of drink it was and Milena licked her lips. A love potion, she said. A may or may not have realized what was going on at this point but he finished his drink and said he ought to be going and took out his wallet to pay. Milena gave him the bill. A’s face went blank when he saw it. Thirty euros for the ouzo, fifty euros for the love potion. When A regained his composure he began to laugh, a half-choking, half-coughing laugh, and said he wasn’t paying a single cent. Milena went into the back room and when she returned she was followed by a big man who walked past A and positioned himself in front of the door, arms folded across his chest. That kind of place, huh? A said. This is a place to enjoy yourself, said Milena. You’re good, old man, A said, turning in his chair to look at Giorgios, who was sitting at a table reading the newspaper. Giorgios didn’t say anything, didn’t even look up, just smiled and continued reading. A was still had his wallet out but he didn’t open it. Milena told him they didn’t take cards, only cash. A asked to see the menu and Milena handed him one. The prices are right there, she said, pointing. And if I don’t pay? A said. Milena looked at him and shrugged. A turned and looked at the big man blocking the door. The man had at least three inches on him and maybe fifty pounds. The bar was silent for what must have seemed like an eternity but was probably only ten or fifteen seconds. Then A winked at Milena, opened his wallet, and paid the bill. I’m going to come back, he said, and burn this place down. He said it matter-of-factly, with a smile. Of course no one believed him. They figured he was embarrassed and trying to save face. He even gave Milena a ten euro tip. Then the big man stepped aside from the door and A left the bar.
This deceptively simple story (most things we fail to understand are simple) is also a true story (according to Javier) and as such does not have an ending but a beginning where the ending should be, and yet a beginning of what it’s hard to say. Javier told me all this as we were laying in bed, he in the bottom bunk, me on the top, staring at the white ceiling, both of us unable to sleep, having just having come down with a bit of the flu that was going around the hostel. I asked how he’d heard about this Milena girl. Javier was a seasoned traveller, a vagabond, and he said that at one point during his travels he found himself in a bar in Athens, surrounded by whores, and the whores were saying something about a girl named Milena, beautiful Milena, poor Milena, something like that, and Javier didn’t have much going on that day and was in the mood for a story so he asked who she was. The whores told him the story about her and Giorgios and the young American and then Javier asked where Milena was now. Javier was sitting at a wooden table with three of the girls and they were listening to a Billie Holliday track on the jukebox, “I’ll Be Seein You,” and when he asked where Milena was the girls went silent and didn’t look at him so he asked again, thinking they hadn’t heard, and one of the other girls, who was playing cards by herself at a table, went over to the jukebox and put on a Bruce Springsteen song and then came over to Javier and sat on his lap and said that he burnt the Hollywood down. Who? said Javier, and he knew it was a stupid question as soon as he’d said it. The young American, said the whore, who was African and had the darkest skin and whitest eyes Javier had ever seen. What do you mean? said Javier, though of course he knew what she meant. I mean he came back to the bar after they’d closed and burned the place down, she said. Jesus, said Javier. Well, said another whore, no one knows for sure it was him but the police said someone smashed the window with a rock and then climbed in and poured gas everywhere and then lit a match. Milena, she explained, didn’t wake up until it was too late and she found herself trapped in her little room and got burnt badly, head to toe, disfigured. It’s a miracle she survived, really, she added thoughtfully. She looked like a burnt piece of bacon, said the whore on Javier’s lap. I went to visit her in the hospital every day until she recovered, and then, just like that, she was gone. I contacted all her friends, called the hospital, even checked with the girls at the hair salon where she worked during the day, but nobody had heard from her. Javier didn’t ask any more questions then because it’s never good when someone disappears, in Athens or anywhere else. You know what’s strange? she asked Javier then. Javier thought it was all strange, everything he’d heard, but he cleared his throat, which had gone dry, and said: what? I feel worse for the young American than I do for Milena, said the whore. Javier said he felt a sickness in his stomach then, a heavy knot, but a moving knot that was twisting and turning inside him and he found he could barely speak but when he did he asked why she felt bad for the young American. Because if you can’t learn to laugh, she said, you’ll never make it. It occurred to Javier that she hadn’t blinked the entire time she was speaking and he knew he needed to leave, to get her off his lap, to stand up from his chair and leave, but then one of the other whores came up behind him and rubbed his shoulders and asked if he’d like to have a go and though he didn’t really he found himself following the girl upstairs to her room.