Story: Stacked Deck

Greek e-Awards 2012 Winner
(as part of the short story compilation “A Bite of Writing”)

It’s always like that, isn’t it? You have the opportunity to leave and you want nothing else to change. You consider staying and you are afraid that everything will. As though life were a cheeky card dealer at a sketchy casino, shuffling a stacked deck. You always have the option to hit or stand, oblivious that no matter what you do, you will lose.

That’s what happened to Demosthenes. As soon as he met Ria, he had to leave Athens for London, for his postgraduate course. She had serious doubts about long-distance relationships; he had none at all.

No big deal! London is just three hours away. Commuting by bus in Athens sometimes takes even longer, especially when there is a demonstration downtown. And they don’t even serve a meal on board. As for the plane tickets, just make sure you book them well in advance and you get them almost for free. Especially if you squeeze all your clothes in a laptop bag.

As if they would see each other more often if he stayed in Greece… He would have to find an eight-plus-hour job, so would she, and then allow for two hours daily commuting time. They would end up seeing each other only twice a week; whereas a weekend in London would amount to quality time. They could be together all day long. And more important, all night long…

Hearing all this, Ria began to reconsider. What if Demosthenes was the one? Maybe not, but what if he was? Should she give it a try? It would be a one-year postgraduate course. Take out a fortnight at Christmas, another one at Easter, three months in the summer; four months already gone. During the remaining eight, they would take it in turns: she would go to London, he would come to Athens, and sometimes they could even meet in Paris, where her sister was studying.

Their love seemed to be like mathematics. They added up the time apart, multiplied with nostalgia, divided by quality time together, and subtracted the total from their expectations. It was greater than zero.

They agreed to try the long-distance relationship. Demosthenes issued his ticket, and Ria secretly hoped he wouldn’t use it, and spent the remaining seventeen days in counterfeit support of his decision to include her in such a life-changing choice.

If he was to change his mind as she hoped, he was definitely a last-minute person. She went to the airport to see him off. It was there where she had to meet his parents, after only two months of relationship. To add insult to injury, she had also to kiss him goodbye in front of them and accept their offer for a ride back home. What excuse could she make up? Their houses were just five blocks away.

She was afraid that his mother would not let her get away like that without going through an interminable questionnaire about her own plans. Thankfully, his sister was there. She felt she could count on her. They started chatting in a low voice, in hopes that his mother wouldn’t give Ria the third degree. She got away easily. His mother spent the whole ride home honoring the stereotype of Greek mothers: letting tears trickling down her face.

“She seems a nice girl”, she said right after they dropped Ria at her house. Her words sounded as a take-off for her first reconnaissance flight. If her husband agreed, she would have to unload her guns and return to her base. If he disagreed, she would load them and start bombarding, till all positive impressions of her would-be daughter-in-law were severely damaged.

But rather than becoming a daughter-in-law, Ria soon ended up an ex-girlfriend. She couldn’t take it, Athens–London. She saw Demosthenes on Skype and wanted to hug him, kiss him, tussle his hair and throw at him the teddy bear he had bought her. Now, she threw the teddy bear against her computer screen and it fell on the floor.

Love may be like maths, but doesn’t sit comfortably within technology. Kisses cannot be scanned, the smile cannot light up with pixels, the hug cannot be 3D-printed. When you’re told how much one loves you, it’s not in gigabytes.

Ria decided to break up with him just a couple of days before he was due to come back for New Year’s Day. This way they could both start afresh the new year.

Breaking up on Skype was not easy. He wanted to say so many things, ask her so many questions, and the internet was as intermittent as Ria’s love for him. While he was in distress, there popped-up a window: hey man, are you going to the party tonight? No.

Demosthenes had to be patient for two days. Two days only. He would then go back to Greece and meet her for a drink. He wouldn’t make a move to kiss her, he respected her decision, although he wanted to scream at her face that she was wrong. He would just tell her how much he had missed her, putting on some puppy eyes that had always seemed to do the trick. He would suggest they return together to London and fly to Edinburgh for a road trip to the Highlands. He would slowly work her until she was doubtful about her decision, offering a meeting every month until June. Just six months of patience, that’s all he asked for, in exchange of his playful heart and mind.

On their way back home through the park, as she would walk looking down in search for a reason to accept his proposal, he would suddenly kiss her, offering the best reason. She did like his kiss. She would always let a sigh of weakness escape her lips before touching his. But even if he couldn’t bring her round to his point of view, he would, at least, make her think.

One day before his flight, he started packing. He put his underwear, socks, trousers and jumpers in a small suitcase, but there was still some room left. Out of the blue, he realised he was leaving for Greece without a gift for Ria. He grabbed his keys and went out. He paced fast, looking for attractive shop windows. He didn’t want to buy her anything expensive or serious. He was after something funny and sweet that would show her how often he thought of…

He had found it. As soon as he saw it, he realised it was perfect. Amidst double-decker bus fridge magnets, miniatures of Big Ben and cockades with the names of Tube stations, a stuffed dog that moved its head wearing a bearskin cap was looking at him like a puppy waiting to be adopted. He bought it. He went home, and put it into his suitcase. It was the piece that completed the puzzle. Seventeen hours till his departure.

He lay in his bed, switched off the light and, went again through the scene with them discussing their reunion. All outcomes he could think of were positive. He knew she had feelings for him, what she lacked was patience.

When he woke up the next morning and looked outside, he squinted his eyes at the bright snow that has settled outside. It felt surprising, but he did not worry. He knew that the British, punctilious as usual, would have foreseen the snowfall and would have already done their best to minimise disruption at Heathrow.

He checked the airport’s website and found out that the earlier flights has been cancelled, but his would only be delayed by one hour. He left his room half an hour later, and walked towards the train station, carefully following a white, slippery path carved by the first explorers of the pavement.

Reaching Heathrow, a dark grey coating of fog blocked his view from the window. The snow sent shivers up and down his spine and became one with his blood, making him freeze at the thought that he might not be able to travel. Some passengers around seemed distressed. Her flight had probably been cancelled. He walked to the departure board mustering all the hope his dreams had piled up.

When he read ‘Cancelled’ on the electronic board, he felt the snow melting and turning into tears.

That just could not happen… This was not only bad luck, it was just unfair. Suddenly, he took heart, feeling stupid. Even if he didn’t fly on the same day, he would fly the next morning. His plan could still go ahead, he only needed to board it on a flight.

He was out of luck. London had never seen such a snowfall, and Heathrow remained closed for three days. He had already redeemed his ticket in false hopes of returning to Greece by train through France, but most of the tracks were blocked. When Heathrow reopened, he was unable to find an affordable flight.

He quit.

He celebrated New Year’s Eve all by himself, with his Chinese neighbour next door wishing him on Skype. His mobile phone was lying on his desk, quiet and indifferent to this drama. Neither Ria nor his friends had sent him a single text. They must have all been out partying, dancing and laughing, drinking and forgetting the absent ones.

Demosthenes was looking at his mobile, Ria was looking towards the door. Standing alone amongst a partying crowd, she was waiting for it to open, to see him storm into the room, taking everyone by surprise. She had no idea that he had not even made it to Athens. They hadn’t texted each other; she was too proud, he was too dispirited.

His mobile didn’t ring and her door did not open. Demosthenes threw himself into his bed, and Ria threw herself into the arms of a charming, young Latin dance teacher. She had had too many drinks already, he wanted one more. It didn’t take them long to end up in his place, making love to the tune of a Spanish guitar.

While Demosthenes was plunging into sleep, the Latin dance teacher was plunging into Ria’s well-hidden secrets. She saw bright stars in her night sky, as all the fog had gathered at Demosthenes’s heart. He dipped it into the sugar of his dreams, just like Ria had dipped her lips into the dancer’s mouth.

The next morning was a new year. Demosthenes wrapped up well and went to walk in the park. Every now and then, he would turn back to see his footprints on the snow, which had begun to melt under the sun that was climbing over the buildings.

In Athens, Ria would wake up with a headache next to a stranger, who was still sleeping. Scanning her memories for the previous night, she tried to remember how she had got there, in that place with the bright colours and the animal print rugs. She hastily got dressed and left without looking back.

On her way home, she thought of Demosthenes. He was one of her first thoughts every morning. Was it the wrong decision? Could it be that she wasn’t patient enough? Did she have to call him? Or should he? How about an email? But what did she have say to him anyway? Especially after the previous night.

He didn’t have to tell her anything either. He could see it now clearly;­ they just were not meant to be together. All that snowfall on the day of his departure could not have been a coincidence. He prided himself for being the center of the universe, only to be disheartened by the thought that she might have already found someone else. It would make sense. Such things do happen in long-distance relationships.

They were walking together, with a few thousands of miles apart. Demosthenes was wading through the snow and Ria was walking under sour orange trees.

Demosthenes felt a motion at his legs, and jerked with fear. To his surprise, it was just a cute fox terrier looking at him, equally frightened. Once his fear whisked away, the dog reminded him of the one he had bought for Ria.

“Oh, I’m so sorry”, said a girl holding its lead. She kneed and took the dog in her arms. Then she smiled at him and turned around to walk away.

“What’s his name?” he asked. He initially wanted to know the dog’s name, but he found out hers, and that she was a film student, she despised yellow, and she enjoyed silence. He was comfortable providing it to her, as he spent the next six months admiring at her inner sanity which she materialised with her every touch and kiss.

She was his Blackjack. She made him realise that the deck was never stacked. He had just sat down at the wrong table.

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