The Big Sick
Finds that laughter-through-tears sweet spot, often in the unlikeliest of places.
"Oh, what a funny thing happened this afternoon," Melina Mercouri said, curling her feet beneath her and her voice around me. "A man came to interview me from the newspaper and I said, let me make you feel at home. What can 1 do for you? And he said, Peel me a grape. I peeled a grape and I fed it to him." She smiled wickedly. "A little bit at a time. Now I ask what can I do for you?"
Well, you can pour me some of that J & B, I said.
She took the bottle and held it by the neck and poured me half a tumbler-full, to match her own. "You are a wise boy," she said. "You make the right choice."
We drank, clinking glasses all around, and I proposed the Irish toast that the wind be always at her back, the road rise up to meet her feet, and the Lord hold her in the palm of his hand, a possibility which seemed to intrigue her.
"Ah! But I must get ready for dinner!" she said. "You will see a woman who can be dressed for dinner in five minutes." She swept into the bedroom of her hotel suite, followed by Anna, her traveling companion, and in four minutes we were on our way to Athens on Rush. She wanted to go there because Harry Lemonopoulos was playing there. "He is the best bazouki player in the world," she said. "I brought him over from Athens for 'Ilya, Darling,' and now he is my brother."
Harry was waiting for her on the sidewalk, and he bowed solemnly and then allowed himself to smile when she swept him into her arms. "My brother!" she said. "How I miss you!"
And then we were inside and - my notes have a little Roditis wine slopped over them - the Athens Quartet was playing "Never on Sunday" and she was smiling at them and humming along. And then they were playing another Greek song, and she was explaining:
"This is the song about the poor people. We are poor, they say, but we are under the sun, and we are proud. And now they are playing the song that says, make the bed for two...
Make the bed for two,
For me and you,
And there will be a -
And now they sing, when we are in each other's arms, everything will be resurrected." She smiled. "It is a song about - oh, you know. It is a song about resurrection. Greek songs are so wise sometimes."
Then we were eating shish kabob and stuffed grape leaves, feta cheese and cucumbers, anchovies and tomatoes and octopus and...
"Opa!" shouted the master of ceremonies. "Everybody shout with me. Opa! That's a Greek word, ladies and gentlemen, it means, sock it to me.
"Bull-! " Melina said beneath her breath. "It does not mean sock it to me. It means, up! Up! It means, how can I say it, it means everything is up." She threw her arm into the air to illustrate. Everybody in the audience was shouting together, "Opal" And a Greek belly dancer appeared on stage.
"You know why we have Greek belly dancers?" Melina asked. "That's what comes of being screwed by the Turks for 400 years." Her chin on her hand, she watched the girl. "You know," she said finally, "she's good. I like her. The belly dance done correctly is one of the most sensual dances in the world."
She let her head sway back and forth on her hand. "The belly dance," she said, "is infinitely more intelligent than the strip tease. It is a very wise dance. The belly dance says less about what is going to be revealed, and more about what is going to be done with what has been revealed, after it has been revealed."
She applauded as the belly dancer left the stage. "'I remember once in Belgium," she said, "I was sitting next to my husband, Julie. And there was a belly dancer that was wise, wise, so wise...and Julie was aroused, and I didn't care. I was aroused also. We were all aroused, she was so wise, so infinitely wise...."
And now the room grew quiet, and Harry Lemonopoulos walked quietly to the front of the stage and bowed to her, and began to play. After he had played for a while, Melina said softly, "The words to this song say, I am like a little dolphin. I wanted to forget you, little dolphin, but I need you so much. I have become nostalgic for you, my little dolphin, oh, my little dolphin. I want to see your curly eyelashes again."
Her voice grew sad. "To see again. Let's go, the song says. I don't care where I go. I have a wound in my heart. The wound is big like the sea, my dolphin, my little dolphin. Let's go back because I am dying to see your curly eyelashes...."
She sighed. She braced her knees against the table, her arms wrapped around them, and placed her chin between her knees. "For me," she said, "that's Greece. Until the colonels are gone, I will never go back. But I miss her. I want to see her curly eyelashes, oh, my little dolphin."