“I’m a Greek-American dual national, but I grew up going to English boarding schools.”
I gazed at the pretty, dark-haired girl before me and blinked. It was February 1981. I had just arrived in Athens, Greece, a junior in high school, and it was my first day at my new school. The week before, I had been in a Wisconsin high school where the student body was so uniform, the only way we could tell each other apart was by which pizza we preferred: thin-and-crispy cut into small squares, or thin-and-crispy cut into little squares. I preferred neither. I was a transplant from New Jersey. Loud, obnoxious Unitarians, we never quite fit in amongst the reserved Danes of Racine. And I liked my pizza thick and rubbery, cut in a wedge and folded down the middle, grease running down your arm and dripping from your elbow. At that time, no one in the upper Midwest of the United States had ever seen such a pizza. I think they thought I was making it up. Yup, I was an Outcast.
But that was Back There, in “the States”. Now I was living the bewildering life of an expatriate, where people introduce themselves by their combination of nationalities.
This girl in the school library was the third girl who had spoken to me already that day — spoken to me like I was a Person. That’s roughly the number of girls I could expect respect from in a whole year in Wisconsin. The first was the school bus matron, an American who had never lived in the States. At school, a girl from New Zealand was waiting to escort me to some appointments and then to my first class. I wasn’t sure where New Zealand was; I was vaguely surprised she was white. She dropped me off at World Lit, already in progress. Ms. Priles, a prunish caricature of a literature teacher, told me they were taking a test and I should go to the library, find Mariani, and start reading Death Of A Salesman.
“Mermiani? What’s that?”
“Not what, who! Mariani, a girl, pretty, dark hair, go find her.”
I found my way to the library, spacious and light. On the mezzanine, I spotted a dark-haired girl sitting alone at a study table splattered with schoolwork. “Excuse me, are you… Mrinimininni?” I mumbled.
She was wearing an oversized blue winter coat. When she looked up from the table I had the impression of a puppy peeking nervously out from under a blanket. Instantly I felt an impulse to come around to her chair, drop to my knees, place a hand on her arm and ask “Are you all right? How can I help?”
She spoke. “Mariani [mah-ree-AH-nee], yes, that’s me. And you? Are you new?”
Hers was a voice to pour onto a waffle, a voice with which to stuff a pillow and sleep upon in blissful peace. Low, soft, warm, gentle, kind — and high-class British. Something in my heart sort of collapsed. Now mind, I was deeply in love with one of those blond descendants-of-Danes back in Wisconsin. That was covered. This was something completely different.
“Um, new, yes. My name’s Glen, from… near Chicago… in the United States…” I blushed. She chuckled.
“Yes, Chicago in the United States, seems I’ve heard of it.”
“Are you… English, or… your name seems Greek?”
“I’m a Greek-American dual national, but I grew up going to English boarding schools. I think my parents thought it would give me class or something. Um… are you going to sit?”
“Oh yeah. Uh, Ms. Priles says we’re supposed to read Death Of A Salesman–”
“I know, but I’ve got this thing to finish for AP Chemistry… ugh.”
“Chemistry? I’m in that class too! Can I see?” She turned her notebook toward me. I had a brief fantasy of glancing at the page, announcing that all her chemistry troubles were over, and coming around to her side of the table. Then I looked at the notebook and realized my troubles with chemistry were just beginning.
We sat opposite each other for a while. I read The Adventures of Willy, Happy and Biff, and she scribbled cryptic notes about Hybrid Orbitals. Three girls had spoken to me that morning, each apparently unaware of the “Outcast” visa in my passport. I liked this one. I supposed that every boy in school wanted to be near her, but somehow I sensed that wasn’t the case. Meeting Mariani was a new experience for which I had no words. It would be many years before I understood that what I sensed was vulnerability and what I felt was protectiveness.
Abruptly, she packed up her stuff and rose. She made some explanation, but her quiet words were submerged and lost to me in the soft-buttery loveliness of her voice. When I replied, my own voice seemed far away. “Oh, yeah. Okay. Uh… see you in Chemistry?”
“Yes, and tomorrow in Lit. Bye, nice to meet you.”
As she headed down the stairs and pulled her coat closed, I wondered if she’d be all right crossing the courtyard by herself… I shook my head and wondered why I would wonder such a thing.
I hoped we would be friends.