“So, just so I get things straight,” I asked, as I drove into the highway and sped away from Athens, “the plan is, we have no plan. Right?”
“Exactly!” George exclaimed joyfully, then lit a cigarette, his right hand hanging freely out of the open window.
George and I had been friends for more than fifteen years; we started at elementary school together and retained our friendship throughout the ages, bonded from our mutual interest in philosophy, politics, and literature. Of course, we rarely agreed on those topics of discussion, but that’s also how we became best friends in the first place; drinking gin and tonics, or tequilas, in small bars in Athens—as mere fourteen years old, who thought they knew everything—discussing vividly about anything and everything, often to the annoyance of the other patrons.
We often made great plans about trips around the globe; we wanted to ride the Trans-Siberian railway, reach China, and thence explore the Far East. We were planning on a road trip all across the U.S.; we had even gone as far as searching for cheap cars to buy. We wanted to do everything and ended up doing nothing because we both got entangled with responsibilities. We had our studies to take care of, we then had to find work, make money; I was in a serious, long-term relationship—knowing that an eventual marriage was looming over my head—and he preferred meaningless one-night stands, till he had his heart broken one too many times and gave up on it altogether, suddenly settling for the prepaid lips of strippers and prostitutes.
Looking back, I can’t help but smile at all our long conversations—about our lives, about our problems, and about our great plans doomed to remain fantasies. Nights upon nights spent in dim-lit bars, or in smoke-filled strip clubs; for a long while, we had to settle for Skype conferences, because we were living in different countries, and sometimes ended up talking for eleven hours straight, spending an entire day in front of a computer screen, pretending we were somewhere outside together, whilst both trapped within four deaf walls. And yet, we had more fun than we would have, had we gone out with other people.
And then, one day we were both in Athens—it was Christmas time—he told me the news; we climbed into my car, depleted our bank accounts, and drove away abandoning everything we knew, in search of our dreams.
We were driving northwards from Athens; our first stop, Volos. We sat in a small coffee shop by the port, staring at the wild sea, the roar of the waves reminding us of our own turbulent mindset. We ordered tsipouro—for which Volos is famous—and some finger food and just conversed. We didn’t even mention the big gorilla in the room; instead, we opted for our more familiar subjects, politics, and philosophy. We had a long argument, which ended with our, as always, agreeing to disagree, then we took a stroll about town, drunk enough not to be able to continue our drive.
We had some coffee and lunch. We found a small bar, hidden in the alleys of downtown. We ordered some gin and tonics and picked up our discussion from where we had left it. What exactly the topic was, I cannot any longer remember, but, I can still recall how we attracted attention due to the vividness and loudness of our talk. We ended up meeting everybody in the bar; we talked with some girls, but, I was still in a relationship, so even when we were invited at the apartment of one of them, I simply stayed in the living room, discussing the Beat generation writers with the one girl, whilst George went into the bedroom with the other. We spent the night at that apartment and come morning we left like thieves, trying not to wake them. George, as he explained later on in the car, had promised to call the girl and, of course, he had no such plans.
Back into the car—it took us a while to find it, as we had wandered quite far—and we continued our drive up north, toward Thessaloniki.
The goal was to see the world; we would first explore Greece, visit all the big cities, and some tiny villages, ending at Patras, whence we’d sail to Italy. From there Europe, and subsequently the world, would lay at the palm of our hands. George had written a novel about such a journey and now it was the time to live it, too. My girlfriend called me often, worried about me—and pissed, too, for having abandoned her in Athens—but I was laconic and tried to avoid her calls. I had explained to her the whole situation and I think she understood—she didn’t approve, but, that’s a whole different point.
George was mocking me mercilessly; he was trying to get me to enjoy life, he insisted I should have slept with that girl the former night. Alas! deep down I think he was happy for me and my situation, relationship-wise; perhaps, somewhere in the depths of the soul, he was even jealous of the stability of my relationship. Whether, though, it was because he wanted something similar, or simply because he felt that my relationship didn’t allow us to do the same crazy things we did as teenagers, is something that, unfortunately, will remain unanswered.
We stood at Aristotelous Square, glancing about befuddled, excited; we had always talked about visiting Thessaloniki and finally, we were there; I was trying hard not to ponder upon the circumstances and the real reason behind our trip. We walked along the port, took a selfie with the White Tower behind us; afterward, we mocked ourselves for the selfie and laughed hard at having spent more than fifteen minutes for just one worth-showing photograph. We drank coffee at Aristotelous, we strolled at Tsimiski Street. Our first night at the city, we spent it at the Ladadika, drinking wine and listening to live Greek music—rembetika.
At about six in the morning, exhausted yet still wide awake and cheerful, we went to eat a bougatsa, before heading to our hotel room; whilst walking and eating, George joked with two women that walked by us. They remained for a while, we joked some more, all together, then we said goodbye.
The next day—we woke up at about three in the afternoon—we headed back to Aristotelous, where we met the two girls from the previous night; the date had been arranged shortly before we wished them goodnight. We altogether had coffee; we talked for hours. George was flirting with both, I with none; I had to leave the table three times, in order to answer my girlfriend’s calls. They told us about a couple of nice bars near the square— a much calmer environment than of the clubs at Ladadika. Unfortunately, they couldn’t join us that day, but, instead, we agreed on going out the next night. We went our separate ways late in the evening; George and I headed straight to a restaurant, both overwhelmed with a sudden craving for souvlaki. After eating, we hit the bars, gulping down gin and tonics and tequila-shots, conversing both with each other about serious matters and with strangers about nonsensical topics, whilst George flirted freely and without any prohibitions. I had to spend an hour at the lobby of the hotel—drinking beer I bought at a kiosk—whilst he entertained a college freshman he met that night in our room. We finally went to bed at about seven in the morning.
The next day, we met the girls from our first night at Thessaloniki; first, we went to a small taverna to eat, then, we hit the bars. George continued to flirt with both, while he—slightly aggressively—was trying to make me flirt, too. I resisted the temptation, but, it was getting harder and harder. Nevertheless, the night came to its inevitable end; we all returned together to our hotel room, after buying more beer from the nearby kiosk.
I had to sit on the balcony for something more than an hour, whilst George was preoccupied inside with both girls. I drank beer slowly, staring at the slowly rising sun and breathing in the cool, morning breeze; my mind was busy with morbid thoughts, contemplating on whether I should follow my best friend’s example and enjoy life whilst I could, or if I was lucky enough to have someone to stand by my side in better and worse. The party inside was finally over, the girls went home, and we slept. I never mentioned the question that tormented my mind to George and now I’m regretting it immensely, for I’m sure the discussion we would have had over the purpose of living would have been one for the ages. Friendships and emotions may last forever, but people do have an expiration date.
How many discussions did I miss out, because I was frightened of potential ridicule? Or, because I felt the subject was unimportant to mention? I’m scared to attempt to count, for the number may prove too high to bear. I look back at that moment of clarity on that small balcony, whilst staring blankly at the slowly awakening Thessaloniki, and I can’t fight a tear from rolling down my cheek, because I still don’t have an answer to the important question. It’s too late to hope for a response, but, some people say that miracles do occur.
It was the next day, when we woke up with a slight hangover, and yet in a cheerful mood, that I noticed George’s gaze; it was empty, blank, cold. And I also noticed the difficulty with which he walked. Despite that, though, he was still smiling, he was still making jokes, and he still mocked me for spending the previous night all alone in the balcony. I joked, too, unable to mention the hurtful fact. The signs had, of course, always been there, it was just my own perception that had thitherto blocked them out.
He was barely able to descend the stairs and I could hear his groans, no matter how hard he tried to conceal them, every time he had to make even the slightest move—I fear that drinking that frappé coffee that afternoon was probably one of the hardest tasks he ever had to accomplish. He kept on smoking, and loud coughs would often thunder his lungs and cause his entire body to shake violently. He tried to hide the faint blood stains that would appear on the palm of his hand after a cough. I remained silent, faking obliviousness; I had known all along that it was bound to happen, but, I had stubbornly refused to face the harsh reality that was coming toward us like a runaway train.
We spent two more days at Thessaloniki; staying up until early morning—with me being evicted to the balcony, for an hour or so, on both nights—and waking up in the afternoon, to have coffee and some breakfast. George was deteriorating; the day we decided to continue our trip, he sat in the passenger seat of my car and almost collapsed. He leaned backward, closed his eyes, an unlit cigarette hanging idly from his lips, and he simply stared at the grand void of nothingness. I had seen him in such a state before, but, the previous times were due to drunkenness; this was an altogether different case. It felt awful seeing him in such a state, but, still, I uttered not a single word. It wouldn’t have mattered, anyway—I tell myself now to console my aching heart.
We both knew what was bound to happen, and I don’t know whom of us it hit worst. Him, who had to suffer physically, or me, who had to suffer emotionally?
We drove away from the frantic metropolitan life of nightly escapades of heavy drinking and one-night stands and reached the idyllic, peaceful villages of Zagoroxoria, high up in the Northern Greek mountains. We returned to a small motel we had stayed before—during our first visit, two friends of ours had tagged along.
Our schedule changed drastically; we would wake up early in the morning, influenced undoubtedly by the fresh mountain breeze, enjoy a good, homemade breakfast, then we’d drive around the villages, playing in the snow, drinking wine and tsipouro. In the nights, we’d sit outside—despite the freezing temperatures and occasional snowfall—and have long discussions over subjects we had discussed many times in the past, whilst swigging tsipouro to keep us warm. We’d stargaze absentmindedly, fascinated by the unpolluted, star-studded sky, of which we were depleted as children of a metropolis.
His physical deterioration became more evident; I caught him more than once staring terrified at a mirror, unquestionably examining his rapidly receding hairline, the black circles around his bloodshot eyes, the pale color of his skin. But, I never mentioned those things to him, nor did he to me. We just played pretend, ignoring the elephant in the room that was threatening to trample us down at any second.
We stayed in the mountains for a week, unfortunately, unable to take all the walks we had wanted ever since our previous visit; George’s condition was only getting worse and walking for more than ten minutes—let alone the hours most of the designated trails around the mountains required—was out of the question.
Thus, we drove away after a week, George barely able to breathe, and coughing blood almost non-stop, heading toward Patras, and thence Italy and the world.
It was George, who had proposed the trip; it was also him, who had insisted. He had said his farewells to family and friends, shed a few tears with them, then, we left Athens behind. I knew from the get-go I should have refused because he should have been admitted to a hospital and offered any help possible, as well as professional care. But, he wouldn’t hear a single word about it; he was adamant he wouldn’t spend a single second within the confines of a hospital, refusing all medical help and unwilling to undergo any sort of treatment. It was his decision and I followed because I wanted to be there because I needed those final moments of togetherness.
It sounds incredibly stupid, now; perhaps, had we all together insisted on him accepting chemotherapy, or whatever they use to treat the big C, he would still be around…of course, no one can tell us for sure and, if the doctors are to be believed, no treatment would have prolonged his life by a significant margin. At least, by agreeing to this trip, I gained some precious final memories, some final images and discussions to haunt my dreams, till my end comes.
We reached Patras and headed for Rio, a beachside suburb, where my family has a summer house, in which George and I had spent plenty of summers and shared plentiful of crazy moments that shaped our friendship. It was getting late, so we decided to go down to the beach for one single drink; it was winter, so it was nearly deserted, but we sat at the coffee-shop/bar in which we had gotten drunk way too many times in the past and decided on the spot to have the same drinks we were having as fifteen-year-olds; thus, I had an Ursus and George tequila.
On the way back to the house, we bought two six-packs of Heineken and sat on the porch to drink them, whilst recalling all the moments we had created for our future selves to remember. George was smiling and laughing, despite the apparent toll even the simple movement of raising his hand to take a sip had on his body. The night was a long trip down memory lane; we recalled all the times we got drunk and did stupid things, miraculously surviving them all, we laughed at our discussions about our teenage love-affairs, about all the plans we had as teenagers and how we failed our past selves. Then, we talked about the future; about arriving at Venice, cruising around Italy, then head northwards to Switzerland, Austria, Germany.
Once again, he reminded me that he had once promised me a trip to Vanuatu, as soon as he had made enough money out of his novels. He hadn’t succeeded in capturing literary fame, but, he was still as determined as ever to take me there, thousands of miles away from where we were sitting and drinking beer. I agreed, obviously, and we toasted on finishing our journey on the faraway island state of Vanuatu, where we’d drink a cocktail to celebrate the end of the trip of a lifetime.
Finally, exhausted, we headed to bed; we both slept on the ground floor bedroom, in the same bed, as we did back when we first visited my family’s summerhouse, nearly ten years before our last visit.
I woke up the next morning, slightly hangover; I was always the first to wake up, George had never been a morning person. I saw him sleeping peacefully, soundlessly, on the other side of the bed, just like he always did; his face buried on the pillow, lying dangerously close to the edge of the bed, his one leg hanging freely in the air. I went out, bought some pastries from a nearby bakery, then returned back to the house and brewed coffee. He was still peacefully asleep.
I prepared an extremely decent breakfast, with freshly brewed coffee already poured on the cups. I went to wake him; he still lay in the same position. I noticed the smile on his face. I observed the motionlessness of his body, the rigidity of his limbs, the stillness of his ribs. I poked him, no reaction. I brought my ear close to his mouth, no breathing. I put my finger behind his ear, no pulse.
Unquestionably, the hardest part was realizing my best friend had passed away, whilst I slept blissfully oblivious right next to him. I don’t know what made him smile in his last moments on Earth. The second hardest part was having to call everybody in Athens—our other friends, his parents—and tell them the news.
We held the funeral in Athens’ cemetery; after the ceremony, we joked—albeit, the best we could manage was half-hearted smiles—about the Hell George would give us, if he knew we gave him a religious ceremony. Atop the grave we placed an unopened bottle of beer and a pack of cigarettes; we thought it fitting, even though the priest disapproved.
It’s been three years since that fateful day; I got married, to the same woman I was dating back then, and George couldn’t be the best man like we had agreed on when we were fifteen and shared the same desk in school. My son was born last year and his godfather isn’t George. Still, one day I plan to tell my son all about his real godfather, whom he’ll unfortunately never meet. Somehow, I feel that his spirit still lingers on, watching me; maybe he’s happy for me having settled down and started a family, maybe he’s mocking me and I’m just not able to hear the countless jokes.
Perhaps, one day we’ll meet again and raise some Hell in Heaven.
George Gad Economou holds a Master’s degree in Philosophy of Science from Aarhus University and currently resides in Athens, Greece, freelancing his way to a new place. His stories have been published, predominantly, in the literary platform Jumbelbook and his novella, Letters to S., has been published in Storylandia Issue 30.