POLLY’S WILD DANCE
After twenty-five years of dealing blackjack in Las Vegas, Polly Brilliant throws the cards in the air, sells everything she owns and makes a beeline to the Greek island of Kythira to paint, write and forget about men. Or so she thinks.
Instead of escaping from life’s complications, Polly is met with uninvited apparitions of ex-lovers and husbands who propel her back in time to re-examine their madcap relationships. Polly’s Wild Ride is the story of one middle-aged Jewish woman’s adventures in rebellion, self-discovery and ultimately, reinvention.
I AM THE WOMAN WHO ALMOST WASN’T
Polly. Polly Brilliant. Polly, named after my mother’s favorite cousin who died young. Jewish parents name babies after dead people. Confusing, since it would help to have someone loved and idolized as a role model while navigating through the difficult years of puberty and thereafter, but impossible if that person is unavailable. And, Brilliant? Not because anyone in my family ever exchanged theories with the likes of a Moses or an Einstein, no, but because my grandfather was probably unable to make himself understood when he arrived on Ellis Island after spending two months on various large seafaring vessels from Poland.
I like to imagine the man filling out my grandfather’s papers caught a glimpse of wisdom, intelligence, and something of great importance in his eyes, and thought, Aha, someone brilliant. Unfortunately, before Mr. Israel Brilliant could imbue his new life in America with greatness, he died, leaving behind in his afterglow twenty-five dollars in the Shawmut Bank of Boston, a wife who spoke only Polish and Yiddish, and nine children. The three oldest children went to work to support the family.
Rose, my mother, emotionally stunted at the age of ten due to the unexpected death of her father from a heart attack, lived in the past and fantasized about being a movie star. Why had she chosen my soon to be father to be her prince? He had a nice smile and played the piano in a small, local band. Hence, the glitzy charm, soon to dissipate.
Dad was the third child out of five, and the first one born in America. His father worked long hours as a junk dealer and supported his family by selling used metal to the government to be recycled into supplies for the soldiers fighting in World War I. My father moved himself from understudy to the main character as surrogate protector of his younger sisters. This move prepared him to father a daughter many years later. Dogmatic and fearful, Dad never let a young female out of his sight. He accompanied his sisters on all their dates until they married.
Hyman, better known throughout his life as Hymie, married Rose and proceeded to fail at everything: business, husband and father. His passion, aside from loving my mother, who manifested great disdain for him, was for gambling. He would then emerge as Rose’s hero, all spats forgotten, and buy his princess a castle or new kitchen set.
I do not believe in coincidence; I believe in destiny.
— Nikos Kazantzakis, Report to Greco
In 1940, my mother, Rose, wanted an abortion and a divorce, preferably in that order. Her family declared Jewish women don’t entertain thoughts of abortions or divorces. She had to live with her mistakes—my father the loser, and, eventually, me, the renegade daughter.
Why did my mother want to renege on her vows? Hymie, upon hearing he was about to be a father, disengaged himself from sporadic local gigs as a piano player and engaged in steady employment. He worked as a runner for a couple of bookies, ten blocks from where we lived in Chelsea, Massachusetts, who threatened to kill him after he bet their money on a few losing horses. He borrowed from his brother, paid his debt, and settled down in a much less exciting job; counting guns at the Watertown Arsenal—his contribution to World War II.
In defiance of the opposition, I rolled out of the birth canal resembling a fluffy matzo ball. For years, at my birthday parties, even after it became embarrassing, Dad would brag how he had been in charge of bathing me and changing my diapers.
Rose’s mission to relinquish all opportunities to bond with her firstborn child succeeded. She wasn’t a drunk or a murderer, she just didn’t know how to parent me and never got it right, or, so I thought. Her intentions were honorable. She hoped I’d triumph where she had failed. “Polly, don’t get stuck and, remember, marry a rich man.” This was a mixed message, and one I eventually used to my advantage.
Contrary to my mother’s aspirations, I schemed to encourage the gypsies who lived around the corner on Bloomingdale Street to kidnap me. They owned a horse and cart; we didn’t even have a car. The gypsy mother wore gold bangles that reached from her wrist to her elbows. The thick gold chains around her neck were heavy enough to anchor her to the bottom of a river if she were ever to fall into one. Gold bejeweled earrings dangled from her earlobes, swaying as she walked. They grazed each shoulder like butterfly wings. In the sunlight her clothes flashed and sparkled like the neon sign over O’Brian’s Tavern. She sang gypsy songs as she hung laundry on the clothesline behind the store where they lived. In comparison, my mother looked drab and sad and, well, I guess, used up and dusty.
“Mom, do you know that gypsies kidnap children?”
“Only in Poland and probably Russia too, not here in America.”
“Well, the gypsies around the corner, the mother waved at me yesterday.”
“What would you do if they kidnapped me?”
“Nothing. But, your father would call the police.” Early on I understood Rose wouldn’t save me from danger even if she could.
I was four when my mother’s second chance to get mothering right arrived. Just like magic she reappeared after a seven-day absence and shoved a blanket in front of my face. The blue cotton parted. Inside, a white scrunched up glob with red splotches shrieked. Terrified, I backed away.
Without looking at me, she said, “This is your brother, Marty. Isn’t he sweet?”
“I’d rather have a puppy.”
She crushed the screaming glob against her chest and cried. So, I cried. So there we were, the three misfits. I cried, Rose cried, and Marty the glob cried¾the first and last time we would ever be in unison.
Our conversations usually took place while I did my homework at the kitchen table as she cooked supper.
“Are there any nice boys in your class?”
“I love Robert.”
“Is he glitzy?”
“Sparkles that soon disappear.”
“I’m not sure if he’s glitzy or not. He’s repeating third grade.”
She scowled. “Don’t marry someone like your father, no money, no education and hoping to hit the big one at the track. And, stay away from the glitzy ones.”
“Was Daddy a glitzy one?”
She wiped her eyes with a faded, tattered dishtowel and said, “Yeeeuuuup.”
I fantasized about Mommy dying and a sparkly Daddy holding my hand as we walked along the beach eating candied apples and collecting pink seashells.
“Do I have to live here forever?” I asked as she struggled with the pressure cooker cover. Cooking and cleaning impaired, Rose preferred daydreaming and reading books.
“No, maybe someday you’ll move to Paris. I used to dream about visiting Paris. Now I dream about having enough money for rent and food. Don’t get stuck like me.” Suddenly, my mother who never sang, not even the Star-Spangled Banner on the Fourth of July, belted out the first two lines of the French National Anthem: “Allons enfants de la Patrie. Le jour de gloire est arrivé.” That was all she knew and she taught those lines to me.
In preparation for my future life, I clipped articles about French painters from the Arts Section of the Sunday paper, decorated my favorite jeans and one of my father’s old shirts with finger paints and made an identity statement. “Call me Flambé,” I announced to friends and family. “I’m going to be an artist and live in Paris.”
My mother and teacher had a conference about my name change.
“Polly, stop, stop, stop. Last year you were Barbara, the year before Diana, and this year Flambé. You’re driving everyone crazy. Where did you find such a word?”
“Betty Crocker’s Cookbook. I read about Crêpes Flambé with Oranges while looking for a cherry pie recipe you wanted. I asked you what Flambé means. You said Flambé means food is set on fire; the French do it a lot.”
“Flambé isn’t a name; it’s a process,” Mom shouted over the static voices of her favorite soap opera, Days of our Lives. Every afternoon messages of sad people and their miserable lives pounded out through the mesh speaker of our Zenith radio and infiltrated my uncluttered mind as I sat doing my homework at the kitchen table.
Yeah, well, I’d rather be a process than live like the people on Days of our Lives or live like my parents, relatives, and neighbors.
I drew bizarre faces on lined school paper and signed Flambé in the bottom right-hand corner. After some convincing, my friends eventually saw themselves in my sketches and paid me two cents apiece which I slid on to a tin clown’s tongue, my bank. He swallowed the coins, winked, and said, “One one-way ticket to Paris coming up.”
Fascinated by my mother’s thick brown, curly hair and pale blue eyes, in contrast to my straight, black, cowlick-ridden hair and dull hazel eyes, I imagined her as an angel, floating high above me, untouchable and beautiful beyond anything I might dream of becoming.
After my brother’s arrival, she fattened and dieted obsessively, but never lost weight. Friends and family attempted to ease her pain and told her she was a dead ringer for Barbara Stanwyck. She admired famous people. Eventually, rather than looking like an angel, she reminded me of the Goodyear tire blimp that drifted across the sky on Saturday afternoons.
Rose wore faded housedresses and wedgies with her stockings rolled and knotted just below her knees, a style adopted by many women post-WWII, and pre-pantyhose. I noticed how the men in the street or in the shops stared at her backside. Instinctively I understood they weren’t comparing her ass to Barbara Stanwyck’s. Their stares embarrassed me, so I held my mother’s hand, and pretended she was Barbara Stanwyck.
On Saturday mornings, Rose, Marty, and I walked to the public library. Mom checked us in downstairs in the children’s section for story time while she hunted for books upstairs. I usually chose two books for the week. One Saturday, I met her empty-handed.
“No book today?”
“I’ve read everything interesting.”
“Really? Wait here.” My mother ran back up the stairs and moments later emerged with two books, which she handed me with a chuckle. “Since you’re so dissatisfied with your life, read about Jane Eyre, an orphan, and Catherine and Heathcliff. She fell in love with someone worse than I did. Heathcliff is a good example of what sort of man to avoid. And, remember, stay away from the ones without money, and the glitzy ones.”
I hadn’t been looking for a man. Conquering multiplication tables and the absurdity of long division occupied most of my time, but I was delighted to have upstairs books instead of the silly stuff available in the kids’ section.
The following Saturday, as I skipped on top of snowdrifts and caught snowflakes on my tongue, Rose said, “Well, what do you think of the terrible lives Jane and Catherine had to live? Your life isn’t so bad after all, is it?”
“Poor girls, I know exactly how they felt. Maybe if they had lived in Paris, they would have been happier, maybe as writers or painters.”
Subsequently, she handed me Rebecca and said, “Look at this unfortunate girl. Her parents died. She was left alone in the world.” Without a doubt, this would become my favorite book.
Her reading list for me was endless, “You want to live in Paris? Here read this. There are terrible governments and revolutions in France.”
I devoured A Tale of Two Cities and identified with Madame Defarge. Mrs. Goldstein, a neighbor who lived on the first floor, taught me to knit.
I clipped a newspaper review of a new book on the life of Toulouse-Lautrec.
“Are you eighteen?” the librarian asked.
“Yes, of course.”
On the petite side at eleven, I looked nine and very much like Little Lulu from the comics. No one took me seriously and they were somewhat wary, lest I play some terrible trick on them.
“Downstairs. Now,” she commanded and pointed toward the door.
I marched home with plans of killing the librarian racing through my mind. I handed the clipping to my mother. “The catalog card has a red dot next to the title (which meant For Adults Only). The librarian sent me down to the kids’ section.”
On Saturday morning, Rose marched up to the same librarian and checked out the book. I stood by the front door and, in defiance, hummed the French National Anthem. My mother handed me the coveted book and said, “Here, this might change your mind about being an artist.”
I read the book in three days. I cried. I yanked at the roots of my hair. I fantasized about holding Toulouse in my arms, feeling his pain and loving him forever.
“Great life, huh? Sure you want to be an artist?”
“Well, I’ll paint and write books too. That way if one fails, I’ll have the other one to help me survive.”
Over the years I tried to share my life with my mother. Resolving our differences involved skills neither one of us possessed, but I tried anyway.
During my junior year in high school a few friends turned me on to the power of nasal inhalers. The cotton cylinder inside the plastic tube had been soaked in the factory in Benzedrine along with other ingredients. I cut one of these cylinders into quarters and swallowed them with a large glass of Coca Cola. My eyes rounded out like Hoot, Hoot, The Owl’s seeking food, and Mom was dinner.
“Let yourself go, Mom. Part your hair behind, roll the bottom of your trousers, (she never in her life wore a pair of pants) eat a peach, and walk along the beach. You’ll be free.”
“You haven’t slept all weekend. Stop following me and reading poetry about picket fences and an old man on a beach. I don’t understand any of it.” T. S. Eliot and Robert Frost weren’t on her reading list. “I like the short story you read yesterday. Who wrote that?”
Did I see a flicker of pride in her eyes? In retrospect, it was probably a sign of relief as she thought, if she’s determined to be a poor and starving artist and she moves to Paris, I won’t have to witness my failure or be responsible for her future.
“Better consider teaching or being a secretary. Now, go to bed.”
At that moment I realized my boundaries, if I allowed them to, would suffocate me, and if I were to survive, I had to imagine I was someone else, somewhere else.
A person needs a little madness, or else they never dare cut the rope and be free.
— Nikos Kazantzakis, Zorba the Greek
FLIGHT INTO REALITY
Three months after I received my AARP membership card in June of 1995, I bought a one-way ticket to Kythira, where I would live for the next ten years. The Greek guidebooks describe Kythira as follows: “During ancient times, gorgeous goddesses and gods danced like flower petals through the pure Greek air.” What, no smog? Rating = one star. “Myth will have it that Cronus castrated his father Uranus at the request of his mother, Gaia, in an attempt to stop him from begetting more children.” Great! Birth control pills are a bummer; it’s their turn to suffer. Rating = four stars. “Aphrodite, the beautiful goddess of love and sex, was born from the foam as Uranus’ genitalia hit the sea.” Wow! This is more exciting than Sex and the City. Rating = a trillion stars.
What drama! What fiction! What a theme! Creativity has to abound in such an atmosphere of death, love, and blood. If I couldn’t find inspiration for my stories and paintings on this island, I’d give up.
I chose Kythira with its romantic history, rustic stone walls and Seurat-like fields of wildflowers to be my ithaca. On this isolated island I hoped to fulfill my quest: to uncover who I was in the tradition of the Greek view of Ithaca. This meant to discover my inner self, to celebrate human nature and achieve my goals while overcoming the most difficult and unexpected obstacles to reach them.
What might have been my first obstacle, if I could have seen into the future, was my first flight from the airport to the island.
“Mi fováse, don’t be scared, Americana,” shouted an old woman who suddenly appeared from under the floor, or so it seemed. I hadn’t noticed her among the six passengers boarding at the Venizelos Airport for the forty-minute flight to Kythira.
She had to be crazy. Only someone insane would leave her seat when, within the first twenty minutes in the air, the thirty-five seat, twin propeller plane rumbled and then dropped at least two hundred feet, eleven times. But who was counting? Before each drop, the pilot announced we were flying at two thousand feet above sea level. Unaware of any subsequent elevations, I subtracted two hundred after each drop, which meant, if my calculations were correct—which they probably weren’t, since it’s impossible to measure how many feet a plane has dropped while sitting inside worrying—we were flying two hundred feet below sea level. In Greece everything is possible.
The old woman, head covered in a blue kerchief, her black almond-shaped eyes dancing with excitement, food stains decorating the front of her flower printed dress, grabbed the seat in front of me with one hand, gripped my shoulder with the other, and pushed her toothless grin close to my face. “No worry Americana. The plane, it dances a wild dance, like the Syrtaki.” Her reference to my favorite Greek dance put me at ease, more or less. “We Greeks know how to survive. We dance.” She threw her head back and cackled, a sound similar to one I’d heard years ago when I worked in a mental institution on the outskirts of Boston.
After stumbling and nearly falling over, she assumed a pose known, at least throughout the Western world, as the one where Anthony Quinn, in the film Zorba the Greek, struck on the beach seconds before he discarded his pants and ran bare assed into the sea. She snapped her fingers, unclipped my seatbelt, and yanked me out of my seat. “Páme, let’s go.” Her strong grip didn’t give me a choice. “Horévoume, dance with me.” She pulled me along, swaying to her own version of a Greek folk dance. The other six passengers shouted, “Opa” and clapped as we maneuvered up and down the narrow aisle, our hands clenched high above our heads, ignited by the tempo of the sea below instead of traditional bouzouki rhythms.
Hell, I thought, if I’m going to die, why not die inches away from my dream, laughing and dancing.
Alone in my new venture, knowing only a few basic words of Greek, and determined to live on Kythira for the rest of my life, or at least as long as possible, I’d need a lot of help. I wished this dancing Siren, mad or not, to be my neighbor and friend. If we survived our precarious flight, I promised to believe in her ability to defy the gods and wanted her on my side. We’d dance through fields and conquer storms together.
The stewardess grabbed the back of our shirts, reprimanded us for disobeying the BUCKLE SEAT BELT warning, and flung us into our seats. My dancing partner disappeared.
One bounce, two bounces, and another dramatic tilt as the wing outside my window did a perfect Tango Dip. Will I survive? That last plunge put us so close to the sea, I watched schools of fish race toward an unseen goal. Should I shed my pants Zorba-style and jump or gamble on the pilot’s expertise?
My breath surged upward and out of my mouth in sporadic spurts. I wasn’t sure if my heart had stopped or was beating so fast I couldn’t be sure if it was still pumping blood. Blurry images of my parents and my daughter appeared in the aisle. I’m dead. Gasp. I’m dead. I repeated my mantra from 1966, when, after my first failed journey into the world of marital bliss, I left my homeland with a one way ticket to Europe, and, via a Turkish ship from Barcelona to the northern Greek port of Igomenitsa, I arrived in Athens on an ancient, rickety bus, both delighted and amazed to still be alive. Am I destined to live or die, or both in this magnificent country?
The young lady across the aisle turned and smiled, her face wet with tears. “My goat, she tell me no go with two wings up areoplano.”
The old man sitting in front of her turned toward me and interpreted, “No her goat say, she mean her mother say.”
“Thank you. Everything will be okay,” I replied, in broken English and shards of Greek, thirty-five-year-old remnants of my earlier trip. I was on his side and certainly wanted him on mine.
His warm, toothless grin symbolized the endurance and longevity of Greek lives. I would live, if for no other reason than I was in Greece, surrounded by Greek survivors. He clicked his worry beads to the frenzied beat of the right engine; the left engine sputtered and labored, threatening to retire early.
Two suitcases fell to the floor from the overhead compartment, just missing the old man’s head.
Another swoop nearly threw me into the aisle. My seat belt expanded and contracted like a rubber band.
A woman three rows down turned to me and said, while simultaneously poking a forefinger into her chest, “Toula, so have three curtain. Curtain must have tree. Toula in sea dead, no one give curtain tree.” She started to cry.
The interpreter turned, “She mean her chicken need food. Ach, such bad English.”
I must remember to get this man’s phone number.
My hands tightened around the armrests as the plane bounced, I’m sure, more than a million times, and then came to a sudden stop. The other passengers jumped from their seats, cheered, applauded and rushed toward the exit. By air, sea, or land, the Greeks always cheer and applaud when they arrive at their destination. I used to think they were paying tribute to the staff until I realized the accolades were self-directed; they’d endured and survived another journey.
For thirty-five years I had meandered along unfamiliar roads and worked through an abundance of mistakes. Now I’d returned to this old country. It wasn’t my old country. I’m Jewish. But Greece is more like home for me than anywhere I’ve ever lived. Wherever I am, I occasionally find myself holding my breath out of fear of the unknown. Except in Greece. With my feet firmly planted on Greek soil, life flows through me like an endless stream of certitude; I am one with myself and I am safe.
So, why does a fifty-five year old Jewish woman, several times divorced, mother of one daughter, sell her house, two pieces of vacant land and all belongings except for some clothing and many books, toss her life in the air along with the cards she’s dealing as a blackjack dealer in Las Vegas and move to a remote island in the middle of three turbulent seas?
At ten, I mentally ran from my childhood. At nineteen, I physically ran from my life. At fifty-five, I decided to run toward it. Moving to Greece was my last escape from my tilt-a-whirl existence. I left behind all memories, good and bad. Wiped the board clean to begin scratching out a new path. Or, so I thought.
During my first year on the island I arranged my living space, and established a close social circle without any serious mishaps—meaning I avoided romantic escapades and disasters. The last of the tourists left by mid-October and fall previewed the severity of the impending winter. Winds whipped their crushing tentacles around 115 square miles of parched land like a humongous octopus. Until spring, when clover and hundreds of wild flowers sprouted overnight, dark brown earth and gray stones dominated the landscape.
Voices of men lost long ago at sea echoed in the wild gales circling the island. The heavy downpour of much needed rain often washed out necessary roads, limiting access to other parts of the island, while enriching the earth in anticipation of spring’s abundant cornucopia.
Early one evening, I sat in front of my computer and revisited the previous night’s dream within a dream where I saw myself standing in an empty room holding a copy of my first published book. The cover wouldn’t open. And that’s when I had a complete, fluttery, release-of-tension orgasm. I awoke and panicked. Wait. The title. I need the title. It might be my lucky title. I closed my eyes. Please, let me see the title. Let me sleep. Sometimes I can wake, go to the bathroom, and as soon as my eyes close return to my dream. Please, let this be one of those times. Too late. Daylight poured into the room.
I sent my dog, Luna, on her morning mission and boiled water for coffee. I shivered with delight and questioned the validity of this incredible phenomenon: a female version of the much-envied male wet dream. Is an orgasm considered valid when it occurs during sleep and without a penis involved? I hoped so, because a perfect orgasm without messy sheets and annoying invasive questions, like “Did you come? I didn’t feel you squeeze. Are you sure you came?” was cathartic.
I often wondered about these nocturnal pleasures. How could I be sure they were real since there wasn’t any physical evidence? Guys know because they get wet and the sheets get gooey. The only proof we have is a smile and a cheery “Good Morning” to all or to no one at breakfast, but cheery we are.
I filled the day with trivial chores, and found it difficult to concentrate on the short story I had only half-finished writing the night before. Images of my dream haunted me until dusk enveloped my secluded world and a full moon covered my patio with an eerie glow. For the first time since I moved to the island, I felt hollow and anxious. I wasn’t homesick or lonely, just keenly aware of my detached existence from the real world. I also knew by morning, once the intensity of the Greek sun filled my world with its celebrated pure light and iridescent shades of purple, green, and blue shimmering off the sea, this uneasy feeling would seem like a trivial price to pay for such spectacular theater.
My neighbor, Kyria Eugenia, who didn’t speak English, brought wonderful homemade food every few days. We’d have some tea and sweets while she recited long stories in a language I could barely understand. Two nights earlier her tale translated into the boat—which she didn’t have—was ungrateful, or the problem could also have been her boyfriend—whom she didn’t have—cheated on her with his goat, Patoula. I found the last version much more believable and interesting. I kept promising myself that before I got into any trouble, romantic or otherwise, I’d learn to speak Greek like a native.
The night after my nocturnal emission, I sat in front of my computer while my dog barked at invisible poets penning rakish locutions between millions of brilliant stars dancing above my three-hundred-year-old house. The beams creaked under the weight of restless ghosts and the walls hummed happy and sad melodies. I logged on to the Internet hoping to link up with a friend in New York or Las Vegas who might be amused by my erotic evening adventure and maybe share a similar experience. My daughter in Los Angeles, usually online at this time, probably wouldn’t find an image of her mother in climactic ecstasy amusing.
Hotmail.com hit the screen with a glare. One legitimate email stood out from the fifty-four porno spams. “Hi, Mom. If you want a good laugh click on this link. Love you, Zoe.” I’m not a web surfer, but winter on a remote Greek island—and Kythira was remote—drove me to do things I otherwise would not do. I logged on, read a few funny stories about what people wrote on accident insurance forms and what little kids talked about in public, like everything from their bowel movements to Mommy and Daddy making a baby on the kitchen table.
On the left of the screen I read: “Click here to read excerpts from the most recent book on laughing by Dr. Hamid Mahejarian.” I blinked and reread it. Yes, that’s what it said. “Dr. Hamid Mahejarian. Research on laughter.” Laughter? Well, I might laugh myself into a coma over this one. I clicked.
Thirty years after our divorce, as I sat on a Greek island in the middle of three turbulent seas, winds blowing around my house at ninety miles per hour, I came face to face with my personal virginity disposal, Speedy Hamid, my first husband, an unfunny companion for the last four years of our six-year relationship. He, over time, had morphed into a laughing expert.
He sat against a backdrop of shelves displaying his published accomplishments, his inimitable grin provoking me to smile back. His warm brown eyes and wide grin still evoked erotic fantasies and amusing memories. I read about his achievements over the past forty years and reflected on how this recipient of what my parents treasured most, my virginity, had flourished without me.