By the end of the school year, the girls had settled into a routine. They would stroll to Sam’s for a Lebanese after school, then go to Sanna’s house around the corner from there. Leyla would recline on the bed, turning the pages of J17 as though they were delicate pastry, and she’d point out any cute boys she came across. “Lush,” she’d call them, because that was the word the magazine used.
Aliki lay in her usual spot, in the corner where Sanna’s headboard met the wall. She could hardly move, held as she was by the mound of pillows and cushions on the bed. She wanted to stay like this forever.
Shirley Manson’s voice smoked out of the CD player on Sanna’s desk, and Sanna turned up the volume while Leyla licked her finger and flicked the pages. “Here’s a lush one,” drawled the pretty brunette.
“Let’s see,” said Sanna. She twisted her torso on its base of denim cut-offs to scrutinise the boy in question. If he had abs, her eyebrows would rise and lift her eyelids up with them. If the boy was softer-bodied, she would turn back to the mirror where the tongs sizzled her hair straight. “Meh,” was all she said, turning away.
Leyla hadn’t even thought of showing the boy to Aliki, to share the experience of his picture as though it were a cigarette passed between lips. Each of Aliki’s denim thighs was bigger than Sanna’s entire body, giving her the look of a human pedalo when she lay on the bed. She also made the mistake of sitting beneath the Garbage and No Doubt posters on the walls; Gwen Stefani, cool and vixen-like, the sexy neighbour in every male fantasy. So instead Aliki counted down the seconds until the conversation turned to Markos, the only full Cypriot in class. Sanna mispronounced his name beautifully, attempting Greek but missing it.
“His abs aren’t like Marr-kos’,” the pretty blonde said.
Normally, Aliki would undermine the girl talk with some sardonic statement. “He’ll get a beer belly one day,” she’d say, or, “Good luck running your hand through that hair – it’s gelled like cement.” Then she’d undercut herself with something like, “But what do I know? It’s not as if I’d ever get near him.” The June heat, however, sizzling their bodies like Sanna’s hair straighteners, had drugged her silent.
Leyla liked to tell the story of how she caught Markos shirtless once, after PE, while passing the boys’ changing rooms. The gold of her irises glowed in the strips of light from the blinds as she spoke of those infamous abs. Staring at the CDs, which Sanna kept in neat rows on racks on her bookshelf, Aliki let the image seize her mind. There was the playground, the cement and the dry patch of beige on which the changing rooms stood. The tin box in which the boys unleashed their sweat and dissolved it with Axe deodorant.
It was almost 7:20 when Sanna’s mum knocked on the door to ask if she should start the car yet. “Two seconds!” the blonde called back, and her hand shot to the crowd of perfume bottles on the dresser, to hover over each in turn. Which would make her lovelier? She settled on a blue star made of glass. A recent purchase that matched her purple earrings and lilac eye shadow.
“Oh-my-God, have you smelt this?”
She extended the bottle to Leyla’s nose, and after a few seconds the brunette agreed: “Mmm, it’s pretty.”
Then there was a brief pause as Sanna turned in Aliki’s direction. For a moment it was as though she’d been expecting to see a different person there, and had forgotten who was darkening that corner of the room. Aliki leaned forward as Sanna moved the bottle to her. “It’s called Angel,” the blonde said. There was caution in her voice.
The sudden sweetness took Aliki by surprise. It was such a feminine scent, so full of goodness and playfulness. “Mmm,” the other girl nodded, and proceeded to watch her friend as she applied to her neck and wrists and arms a further layer of beauty.
Sanna ordered her mother to park the car around the corner from the Othellos Cinema, so as not to look “sad”. She was cultivating a myth, a girl free of parents, as though she were Aphrodite and had been born of the sea. She smelled as though she’d stepped out of a candy cane. Aliki got out of the car, loudly thanking Sanna’s mum, and attempted to pull her jeans looser. She’d wanted to wear a Nike sweatshirt, but her mother had insisted on this more feminine, turquoise thing with short sleeves. Sanna’s heels clopped along the concrete, and she clasped her tiny handbag to her hip. “Oh-my-God, they’re here!” she whispered, and waited for one of the boys to acknowledge her before she acknowledged them.
Alexei, the new Russian in the class, called over to Sanna. Because he’d shaken hands with Aliki when he first introduced himself, she now regarded him as something of a business associate.
“Oh, hi, boys!” said Sanna, and negotiated the steps to join the queue of shirted, laughing teens. Aliki wondered what it was boys talked about, and she was sure it couldn’t all be sex. Sure, they must’ve bounced jokes about Lara Croft around the changing rooms, and snickered at talk of uncovering her cartoon breasts. But in the privacy of the bedroom, their fingers only working a PlayStation controller, all they sought to uncover was the game’s next level.
She followed Leyla’s swaying hair up the steps and, on seeing Markos, greeted the boy in Greek. She shared half her heritage with him, so she could roll her Rs. Sanna’s eyes betrayed her, flicking towards Markos at the mention of his name. It sent a thrill up Aliki’s spine to recognise her one advantage.
Markos’ hair was thick and impenetrable as usual, the sleeves of his T-shirt rolled up to show off his biceps. The other boys’ bodies seemed hidden in comparison, flimsy though their shirts were.
Aliki found herself staring at his thick lips, but when she moved her eyes further up his face she realised his had settled on Sanna. Sanna, the artery of the class. The prize for every hopeful boy doing handstands in the Hall. The skinny-legged envy of every lesser girl in school. Sanna with the straight blonde hair and that syrup of a scent, Angel, throwing invisible arms around the boys and dragging them closer to her.
Aliki’s mother had refused to let her go to Pizza Hut after the film that night. The girl had begged, claiming she wanted to see her friends before everybody went away for the summer. But her mother often spoke with Leyla’s mum, so she knew there were a couple of weeks left before the pretty girl with the gold eyes had to fly back to Syria.
Sanna had offered to wait until Aliki’s mother picked her up, but Aliki insisted they all go ahead. She wanted to feel what it was like to watch her friends walk away through the dark neighbourhoods, giggling with boys.
“Did you like the film?” she heard Sanna ask Markos.
“Yeah, it was funny,” he replied. “I liked the bit with the pie.”
Nobody would be looking over his shoulder at the ton left behind. Aliki would communicate all of this with her eyes, the woman’s cruelty, her fault, as soon as her mother pulled up. She stood with her arms crossed over her chest, flinching at every passing motorbike rev, for a full fifteen minutes.
By the time her mother’s Honda CRV rounded the corner, Aliki had forgotten her plan and leapt into the car relieved.
“Did you have a good time?” the woman asked.
“Yeah, it was fine.”
“What nonsense did you watch?”
“It was fine.”
“See it again in ten years and tell me if you still like it.”
As they sat at the traffic lights, Aliki wondered how she and her mother looked to other people. She, fat and curly-haired with a mole right under her eye, and her mother all coiffed, with an angular face and expert make-up. Nobody would even guess they were related.
The woman scowled at the rear-view mirror. “Have you been building sandcastles?”
Aliki hid her nails under her arms. Then she yanked them free and turned the radio on, to be met with the second verse of Genie in a Bottle. Her skin tingled at the wooziness of the music; what she imagined sex at a house party to be like. She sang along to her favourite line, “…Just one more dance, and then we’re good to go,” only for her mother to cut her short as she changed the station.
“Aliki, we’re not going to listen to that trash.”
“Well, I don’t want to hear bouzoukia, I’m sick of them.”
“This is Marinella. Just listen to that voice.”
“It’s so boring.”
Their words sank to the mats at their feet as the guitars and Marinella’s voice floated around them.
“I nearly called you Marinella,” her mother said.
Aliki couldn’t think of anything to say back, so she pressed her face against the window and wished they were somewhere more pleasant. Her mother always avoided the beachfront nowadays; while the sewers were being fixed, the Tourist Area could take hours to get through. But tonight, more than any other night, Aliki longed to watch the English eating fish at the tavernas, to hear the bass of their karaoke bars, to let the parade of clubgoers slide by her vision.
“You see?” her mother broke the silence. “That top looks great on you. Such a gorgeous colour.”
“It makes me look fat.”
“You are fat. The colour takes attention away from that.”
Aliki huffed and turned away again.
“It’s not that difficult, mana mou. I’ll put you on this special diet and I guarantee you’ll lose three kilos in a week. As long as you don’t keep drinking those Cokes your dad brings home – they only bloat you up and make your teeth bad.”
“So you want me to be anorexic?” This was a regular ace up her sleeve.
“God, don’t be a child, please. You’re nearly 15, you have to start taking care of your body otherwise you’re going to regret it. What did you have today?”
“Ha ha. What?”
“Don’t tell me: lahmajoun?”
“Mana mou, that’s all fat and oil.”
Aliki’s stomach sighed at the memory; the fine pitta, the minced meat sprinkled with garlic and cinnamon… Her mother must have been the only Cypriot with a “less is more” attitude in the kitchen. It was as though she were the English one, not Dad, when she laid dainty meals in square plates on the dining-room table. A leaf and a slice of aubergine, when everyone else stuffed you full of lamb and pasta. She’d even decorated their house in Kalogyrous with a near-invisible hand. Mushroom, cream and taupe: tones instead of colours. She’d spent hundreds of pounds on cabinet handles, taking her time choosing them in London and Berlin, when nobody would ever notice them. And whereas her relatives talked as though they had to yell from one mountain to another, Aliki’s mother barely had to speak in order to silence. Yet all she did was speak.
Every morning at ten-thirty, Aliki’s mother would visit her husband at work. Now that it was the summer holidays, Aliki took to joining her. She tried not to show it, but it thrilled her to take the car to the beachfront, at a time when she would normally be slumped over a desk at school, to the Woolworth’s where her dad worked – the new, sleeker Woolworth’s, so much better than the old one. The air condition would dispel the white heat of the outside as soon as they entered the building, and the freshly baked bread of the Food Hall would accompany them along the marble tiles and up the escalators. Her mother preferred to fulfil her spousal duties before browsing and shopping, so they would always go straight up to the manager’s office first.
Aliki’s mother would knock on the door and open it before a response, and her father would look up with his round blue eyes and say: “There are my two favourite girls.” He always spoke in a pleasant monotone, and would kiss Aliki so that his ginger beard briefly tickled the top of her forehead.
Then her parents would talk. Aliki enjoyed listening to their banal chatter, if only because of how it changed her mother. Talking in English to her husband softened the woman. It was that vulnerability with a second language, despite her fluency in it. But then she’d catch the woman giving the room a once-over, and she’d see the old snob was still, and always, there. Granted, Aliki also believed that her father deserved a better room than this dull, white, airless box. Where was the view of the sea and the palm trees? The space for meetings and mini-golf? It was a minion’s office, not a manager’s. Her mother’s grimace was almost reasonable. Then again, she grimaced at a lot of things. Every time Aliki and her father watched Kostas Kosta, the London-Cypriot comedian on TV, her mother would sneer and say, “What are you watching that Charlie for?” Aliki would reply, “Uh, hello – I’m a Charlie too, remember?” The woman was a bitch.
That much was obvious at the perfume counters. Aliki saw the look in her mother’s eye as the salesgirl approached: “get away from me” with a smile; a jasmine rebuttal. Even though her mother, the manager’s wife, had said calmly, “We don’t need any help, it’s alright,” the girl kept a short distance and watched them closely, as though they were children; as though the delicate objects might fall from their hands and smash on the marble below.
Her mother sprayed scent after scent onto strips of card. “Why does everything have to smell like laundry nowadays?” she complained.
“Aren’t you meant to smell clean?” Aliki asked.
“That’s so boring.”
Aliki took the bottle of CK One from her mother’s hand, held the tip to her nose and inhaled. Citrus. It smelled friendly and comfortable.
“What you’re looking for in a scent,” her mother said, “is complexity.”
“Not everything has to be complex, I’m just saying – perfume is an art form. You can tell the amount of work that goes into it, and some of this stuff is absolute rubbish. Do you remember that cologne I got for your dad from London a few years ago?”
“The one he liked to wear when we went out?”
“I don’t know, I can’t remember.”
The woman looked a little wounded. “Anyway, it’s this fragrance called Dzing!, and it’s inspired by the circus.”
Aliki laughed. “Oh my God…”
“Wait ‘til you smell it before you judge it. A good perfume is more than just a smell. Smell is powerful. It evokes memories, a time and a place. Dzing! is the circus – well, a traditional one. At first you get toffee, popcorn…” and her fingers wafted the invisible aromas to her nose, “…then there’s the leather of the horse saddles, and the horses themselves… Then it eventually drifts away until all that’s left is sawdust.”
Aliki shrugged her shoulders, even though she didn’t feel like it. “Why would you want to smell like sawdust?” she said.
“That’s what’s left, after a while. What I’m trying to tell you is that the fragrance becomes an experience. From the moment you spray it onto your skin, its life begins. Eventually it fades and dies like everything.”
Aliki looked down at the glass counter, the translucent, gorgeous bottles below. The woman sighed, then picked up Davidoff’s Cool Water for men and sprayed it onto Aliki’s arm.
“There. It’s the ocean and you smell clean. Now what?”
They walked around a bit more. As they passed the columns bedecked with Jean-Paul Gaultier’s sailors, Aliki spotted the blue glass star.
“Mamma, they’ve got Angel. Have you smelt it? I really like it.”
On turning, the woman grew colder than the air condition, harder than the marble. “Are you insane?”
“I’m not buying you that trash.”
“But this is the one I like!”
“Mana mou, it makes people smell like doughnuts.”
Aliki huffed, so her mother produced another strip of card and ignored the salesgirl who approached to help her spray the perfume onto it.
“That one’s very pretty,” the salesgirl chipped in, and Aliki raised an eyebrow at her mother, which the woman of course ignored.
She waved the strip in the air, making her bracelets jingle, then put it to Aliki’s nose.
“The trouble with this scent, Aliki, is that it’s a work of genius.” Aliki noticed the name Thierry Mugler. “Perfumes are made up of notes: you have the base note, the middle note and the top note. The top note is the first thing you smell, like when people rush by you, and it gives way to the middle. The base note is what’s left – like the sawdust, remember? – when the others have faded. Now Angel has candyfloss, caramel, chocolate, you name it – everything rubbish and sickly – on top of a heavy patchouli base. Can you smell it?”
Aliki inhaled. She didn’t know what she was smelling now.
“It’s those top notes that make dumb people like it. Because they want to smell sweet and lovely. But it’s the combination of that with the patchouli base that makes it genius. Because it’s a legitimate perfume that manages to appeal to amateurs. Look at this dumb thing: a glass star. Angel. It’s a five-year-old’s fantasy, like putting rose petals in water and calling it a perfume.”
Aliki was aware of the salesgirl’s smile tightening as she flicked her eyes at her colleagues. They’d be laughing about them in the staffroom for the rest of the summer. Aliki had never been so embarrassed of her mother. Her dad would have to get another job, or at least an office more suitable for a manager.
Aliki’s dad preferred to get a weekday off every now and then, so they could go to the beach as a family. While the Curium stretched out for miles, its beach marked out in four parts by the four tavernas along it, it was packed from June to September no matter the day. Still, Aliki’s dad preferred to go on a Tuesday or Wednesday, and Aliki preferred “the fourth beach,” as it was closer to the cliffs. People also tended to be less willing to travel down that far. Aliki’s mother preferred to go in the afternoon, when the sun was less likely to damage her daughter’s skin.
The woman wore a black, one-piece swimsuit that showed off her figure, which she turned into a second outfit with a sarong when she wasn’t swimming. Her sunglasses always stayed on, as did, as far as she could help it, her wide white hat. Aliki noticed the way the woman drew men’s attention. Her dad, however, seemed oblivious. He had the body of a man who once exercised but had given up the gym for the office, yet he was comfortable enough to trust in the safety of his marriage.
Aliki eased her feet out of her rubber flip-flops and lowered them to the sand. The burn was instantaneous. After all, the sand had been sitting there all day, cooking. They should have come earlier.
Her mother waded through the cold sea, dodging a bobbing ball.
Aliki whipped off her shorts and T-shirt and ran into the water. She squealed as the icy waves hit her neck and chest, to her mother’s delight.
When the sea became a bearable temperature, she realised that a man was standing near her, washing himself. He was only thigh-deep in the water, in a pair of tight black trunks, and regarded Aliki with confusion as he patted his body down with what he scooped up of the waves. This man was Markos in ten years’ time. If she were there, Sanna would be admiring his abs, and Leyla would think his jaw was lush. But in the wind and the laughter of the bleached tourists having fun nearby, Aliki only felt a sharp resentment.
“What do you want?” she spat.
The man looked away. She did likewise, and bobbed like that ball amongst the waves.
Though it pained her to admit it, her mother was right – Davidoff’s Cool Water wasn’t the sea. It was a scent she instantly recognised as “aquatic,” but why? Because it was fresh? She patted the seabed with her feet, felt the sludge of the sand between her toes. If she were to make a fragrance that symbolised the sea, this would be the base note: mud, sand, seaweed. The middle note would be saltwater. The top notes would be fried fish and ice-cream. She wanted so much to do what she used to as a child: buy an ice-cream cone capped with strawberry and banana, dip the bottom into the sea and suck out the saltwater with the sweet cream until the cone went mushy and started to leak in the sun.
Maybe she’d call the fragrance Sugarsalt. Sweet Sea. Give it a cute bottle so people would buy it. The ads would be images of half-naked people like this man, washing his abs and pecs as she continued to swim in the rising waves.
When they sat down to eat at the fourth taverna, Aliki’s mother grimaced as the teenaged waiter lay the laminated menus on the table. LeAnn Rimes’ Can’t Fight the Moonlight came tinny out of the speakers, but a group of girls, only slightly younger than Aliki, walked by singing along in stereo.
“Well,” her dad said, casting his menu aside, “they’ve got kalamari. That’s all I need.”
That sounded so good. The thought of sinking her teeth through the crisp batter into the rubbery flesh was tempting, but Aliki knew she’d never hear the end of her mother’s quiet criticism if she did so. She decided on the salmon dish, which made her mother smile. The thin lips, the hair tied back, the bare shoulders, the expression almost invisible behind the rounded shades – Aliki preferred her mother at the beach. The sea wind slowed her movements, made her body more fragile. She was even smiling.
“Mamma, why are you looking at me like that?”
“Because you’re beautiful, my little doll.”
“No I’m not, shut up.”
She hated her mother’s hypocrisy. The woman never pulled her punches when it came to Sanna’s looks. Any time Aliki openly expressed her envy of the pretty blonde, her mother would say, “Why?” and proceed to pick out all of Sanna’s flaws. Her eyes were blue but boring, she’d say, such an ordinary shape and a bit too close together. She was too skinny, like a hipless boy. Her hair was too thin. But Aliki had almond eyes and a nose like a queen. On the other hand, she also had the body of a sofa and a polka-dot face. The woman always had something negative to say. Nobody, nothing, was ever good enough for her.
Aliki looked out at the rows of Pepsi umbrellas and reclining bodies browning in the sun. The navy waves roared towards them, receded, and rolled back even bigger.
When they were all back at school in September, the girls settled into a new routine. During all three breaks, they would go out to the playground and sit on the few concrete steps that ended at a locked door on the side of the Hall. None of them had ever seen it opened, so they assumed that whatever was in there was useless. Sanna, having led them there, would sit right at the top so that her blonde head was visible above the railings. It struck Aliki that they were sitting in order of importance: Sanna at the top, Leyla just below, and Aliki on the bottom step. But it didn’t bother her. She found it easier to sit in low seats now that she had lost a bit of weight. Over the two-month holiday, she’d taken to fruit and developed a taste for plain water. Every morning she drank a mug of green tea, sweetened with honey, and it made her giddy to watch the fat slowly slide off her middle. It was only a matter of time before it all went. Before the braces and biteplate went, too. She drummed her clean nails on the concrete space at her side.
“I’m so glad I don’t have to do Geography anymore,” Sanna sighed. “Like I care how many people there are in Burkina Faso.” Her eyes were half shut by the light, though she sat in the shade. Aliki could see the freckles around the girl’s nose now that her time back in Denmark had diminished the tan. They were cute; they reminded Aliki of Pippi Longstocking.
“Hey,” said Leyla, “listen to this.” She held out her Nokia 3210, and pressed a button. A whiny melody eked out; TLC’s No Scrubs, made up entirely of sounds like a toy keyboard.
“Oh-my-God! How did you get that?”
“My brother did it for me on the ringtone designer.”
Aliki wished she was allowed a phone, but her mother was unbending on the matter. “What do you need a phone for? You’re 15 and this is Cyprus, not London.” But her friends didn’t need to know. Anytime they spoke about their phones, or used them in front of her, Aliki would shrug as though she had no use for such things in her life.
Something hit the wall right next to Aliki’s head, making the paint flake off. A football.
“Hey!” she yelled, before noticing the boy coming up to retrieve it.
“Sorry,” Markos grinned. His shirt was totally unbuttoned, and Aliki could guess where Sanna’s attention was. Instead of resuming his game, Markos gave Aliki a once-over. At this distance, she could smell the Axe deodorant masking his sweat. “You’ve lost weight,” he said.
“Yeah. A bit.”
He lingered for a few seconds, nodding, and then with a brief look to acknowledge the other two girls, went back to his game. Aliki knew that whatever Leyla or Sanna said about Markos and his abs, she would carry on making sardonic remarks but she would stop undercutting herself. She had no interest in Markos, and there was no need to pretend to.
Sanna, on the other hand, was left hanging after the boy’s appearance. Aliki looked up at her friend, at the creased brown eyebrows and the blue eyes, and felt a twinge in her heart. Her mother was wrong about something. The blonde girl, with the freckles and the twig legs sticking out of that grey skirt, and the sugar chokehold of a scent that almost engulfed her completely – Sanna was beautiful.
Polis Loizou is a Greek-Cypriot writer-director currently living in London. He is co-founder of The Off-Off-Off-Broadway Company.
Read more about Polis at http://www.polisloizou.com/