“Mariani? No, she left for England Friday.”
I turned and gazed across the dining room of the pizza joint, tried to focus on something across the room as an anchor against the swell of emotion these words brought. I was at Portofino’s Pizza #13, in Kifisia, a northern suburb of Athens, Greece. It was the summer of 1983 and I was approaching the first anniversary of the great heart break of my life.
I started dating Lori in the middle of my junior year of high school, on January 1, 1981, at a New Year’s party at my place. Six weeks later, my parent’s divorce was final and I moved to Greece with my dad. Lori and I continued dating by mail, and about sixteen months later I got the letter announcing she was with someone else.
My best friend in Athens was a Greek-American-British girl named Mariani, pretty, with the loveliest voice I have ever heard anywhere in this life. Mariani was dating George, but hanging around with me. The three of us formed a set. I was gregarious, obnoxious, and a brainiac; George was quiet, cool, aloof, cynical; and Mariani was warm, emotional, deeply empathetic. George and I both loved her dearly, in our own ways. The three of us formed a cord that was eventually, but not easily, broken.
I have wondered if I loved her as a little sister. I have an older sister, but that relationship has always been a little chilly. I have some close friends, Liam and Inga, twins I have known from birth. Inga reminds me a little of Mariani, and Liam somewhat of myself, but together they sure don’t remind me of me and Mariani. I think if they had been separated at birth and reunited in high school, they might have glommed onto each other the way Mariani and I did.
Mariani was in England when I got my breakup letter. I did not hear from her again until late that fall, when I was in college in Chicago. She wrote me the tenderest, sweetest letter ever, full of compassion and shared anguish. When I came across it amongst my preserved correspondence a year or two ago, I was stunned that a friend could love me so well. Back then, I was stuck in a morass of self-pity and confusion. I longed to see her, talk things over, just bask in the comfort of unconditional friendship. But she was moving about a lot that year — Greece, England, somewhere in the eastern US, Italy I think — and we never connected. All of my letters from my dad during this period contain the remark “No, I have not heard from Mariani. Why do you keep asking? Do you have something going on there? You could do worse!”
So when the following summer, 1983, rolled around, and I went back to Athens to spend the summer with my dad, the one I really longed to see was Mariani. I didn’t have a current phone number for her; George was in Singapore. I called around to all our mutual friends, and finally found one at home, David. He, like myself, was an expatriate American, back in town for the summer. He had no news of Mariani’s whereabouts, but invited me out for pizza that night. “All the gang are coming, everyone who’s in town. My sister Beth’ll meet us there, she’ll know if Mariani is around.”
Portofino’s was located in a handsome stone villa, not far from my dad’s apartment. I sat at the big round table covered with bottles of Heineken, Demestica, and Sprite, facing the entrance, waiting for Beth. I nudged David. “There’s your sister.”
“Beth! Over here! Hey, look, Glen’s here, he’s wondering if Mariani is in town.”
“Mariani? No, she left for England Friday. Oh, hey Nick!”
What did I feel? I only had one name for powerful negative emotions in those days — heartbreak. But heartbreak is the dire agony of losing the love of the beloved. Missing Mariani by two days was different because I knew Mariani loved me perfectly. What was it, then?
I stared at the far wall trying to maintain my composure, baffled that suffering could come in so many flavors.
Thirty years later, the first time I wrote about this, as I recalled the scene and committed it to the page, I re-lived the moment clearly, and immediately recognized the emotion that I could not name in my youth. It was grief.