I was already on vacation when my cell phone informed me that I had a message from my old pal Tony, who lives in Amsterdam.
We hadn’t talked for more than three years and I got worried.
When I called him he asked if I felt like spending my holidays with him. Without second thought, I said yes.
I met Tony six years ago during a trip I took to the Netherlands.
Two months later, a series of events made me chuck it all up and seek refuge in the coolness of Amsterdam, where he helped me find an apartment. This is how we became friends. The following two years we walked countless miles together in the drizzle of the city. In Dam square next to the stone-built bridges and the wet tulip markets. And for endless nights we were shedding rivers of sweat on the dance floors, to find ourselves exhausted at dawn. In a few words, we were deep into the sweet quest of pleasures that Amsterdam can so generously offer.
These were weird days for me. Melancholic days, full of silent explosions. It was the great escape, as I realized much later.
But what made me run away from Athens? It doesn’t really matter. Let’s just say that some things didn’t turn out the way I was expecting them to. So, I woke up one morning and all that I had been wishing for did not matter anymore. This is why I left. A great relief, if you think that just before that, there was a period of five years of hysterically trying to make money and a career.
Each man has the right to know the truth. Sometimes the truth comes with a kiss and others with a punch on the face. Sometimes in the form of poison ivy and others as a lily. The truth must always be welcomed, even when it hurts. This is what I had had in mind back then when I was staring at the cloudy sunrises springing out from the dim waters of the Dutch capital's canals, on my way back home after long clubbing nights, with my head wobbling from the fog and my existential dilemmas.
You may wonder: what was Tony’s part in this story?
Failure has many faces. In my case it had the face of the people who betrayed me. For Tony, failure was a series of events that started from Liverpool and the iron foundries, continued in the lories and ended up into the night.
He was born of parents who only gave him good memories, so when he learned that they passed to eternity, he didn’t even bother to attend their funeral. He was lucky enough to be tall and good-looking and he had spent his adolescence in the gyms. So, early enough he left lorry driving and with the help of a two-meter-long boa snake he found himself stripping at nightclubs.
But even though things were gradually getting better for him, his personal life had started sliding down towards disaster. He married to a woman who ditched him and had a son who found tragic death. At the same time, he got affected by a virus with which he has been sharing his life for twenty years. As if all these were not enough, the boa kicked the bucket and the most vital asset of his work –due to booze or drugs- could not stir up the audience’s enthusiasm anymore.
All alone, he packed his things and settled in Amsterdam. He subleased a motel and a bar and with the years he made a significant fortune.
In a few words, that was the story of Tony, who was my best friend during my stay in Amsterdam. Why? Maybe because he was a nice guy. Maybe because he was fun. Or maybe because as I was looking at his fading tattoos and his anabolic-fed big muscles, I was realizing that my own bitterness for life was actually a joke.
Until one day I decided to go back to Greece. Sated of all that dolce vita, I was anxious to see the Attic sky again, my parents and friends, whom I kept loving, although they had betrayed me.
And because when you don’t ask for anything, you usually get it all, all I had left behind when I departed, came back to me fast, making Amsterdam’s fog, a history in no time.
As for Tony… I was thinking about him from time to time with affection and sadness. But I was hesitant to call him because I was afraid I’d listen to dreadful news.
But it was him who made the call after all. Listening to his voice and hem and haw about a heartbreak, I realized he wasn’t well. So, in old times sake, although I felt full of summer relaxation, I accepted to join him in his Greek holidays.
Our meeting at the airport was cordial. The next day we left to Mani. Why Mani? For no apparent reason. This is where the road took us. Maybe it wasn’t such a coincidence after all, since within me I could only identify the period I lived in the Netherlands with the sense of dryness of Mani’s landscape.
In the evening, as we were drinking wine, we talked about the old days, laughed, recollected the past, stunned from all we had lived through together, and commented on my decision to return to Greece. But next day, silence took over.
In the beginning there were just some dead moments; as the days passed though, they were getting longer.
It was obvious: the bridges that once joined us had collapsed. From the fourth day onwards, we who used to ceaselessly talk to each other had nothing else to say. To be perfectly honest, I was feeling intolerably bored. You see, standing back on my feet long ago, I was seeing life with different eyes. But he was the same old thing. Words told millions of times before were making our friendship seem like champagne gone flat. In the last days, glued around a swimming pool, we hardly said a word to each other.
And the time came to bid him farewell.
I drove him to the airport, carried his suitcase out of the trunk, kissed him on both cheeks and just before saying goodbye, I smiled and told him I had a great time. He looked right on my eyes, which made me feel uncomfortable. I though he’d realized.
As a sudden tempest was about to start, he took out a pen and a piece of paper. He asked me to write down my full name, my ID card number and an address where his lawyers could locate me at any given time.
I asked him what was all this about.
He looked at me again in the eyes and said that no one knows what tomorrow brings and since he had nobody in his life but me, he wanted his notaries to be able to find me in case something happened to him.
I felt my knees trembling.
“I cannot accept this,” I said.
We were stacked looking at each other like two wounded animals. Before going through the airport’s sliding doors he turned and sent me a kiss with his fingers.
I went back to my car and let my body collapse.
As I was driving by the wet Attiki highway heading home, to my friends, my job, my parents, I was choking with sobs.(one of the forty-eight stories included in Petros Birbilis’ book “I only have you,” published February 2, 2007, by Melani Editions in Athens)
The short stories Petros Birbilis lovingly whispers to us in his book “I only have you” are the sweetest treasure to keep. Some are more sentimental and others insouciant, at times they have a kick of cynicism and a scent of disappointment. But they are always honest and come from this man’s heart as he exposes his most hidden thoughts.
What the writer screams out silently in this book is a farewell to innocence, as his early forties find him more mature and charming than ever.
“I only have you” is a must-read and is available by Melani Editions, Athens, in the Greek language (for the time being).
Buy it now here
Petros Birbilis studied film direction and worked in several fields in media, initially audiovisual and currently printed. He has participated in various video and digital image festivals and work of his has been broadcasted in Greece and abroad.
Watch Petros' video "New York, New York"