Grandma has a grudge against the flies. They buzz in the stuffy summer heat not even the sea breeze can pervade. Armed with a flyswatter made of orange plastic, she lets them land on her skin, wrinkled as used tinfoil, then swings. Misses. The bugs recede, regroup, rub their front legs together as if they’re sitting on a secret.
“The flies are the fattest in August,” Grandma says, looking up at the tiny chapel, nestled far into the blue haze of the mountains. “Bad omens.”
I stand silent in the doorway and watch her through the beaded curtains leading out into the yard. Whenever she swats at a fly, she ends up hitting herself. The slap of flesh echoes.
I don’t ask her to stop.
Grandma catches me making out with a boy on the pitch-black pebble beach. Silently, she takes me by the hand and drags me away from him. Her perennial mourning-black dress looks like tar, the way it sticks against her body.
“Do you want everyone talking about you?” she mutters as we step into yellow pools of streetlight. “Is it not enough that you’re an orphan in their eyes?”
Dark shapes flutter against the power lines overhead. Moths, or perhaps bats.
“I still have one parent left, Yaya,” I retort, though my father is more like a ghost, a wispy shape only seen out of the corner of one’s eye.
“A girl is an orphan without her mother,” she huffs.
Children ride their bikes around us in circles. They’re eating Popsicles, sucking their cheeks in. “Slut,” they whisper-cough while their parents sit on lawn chairs within earshot.
When we get home, Grandma locks the rusty black gate behind us. I glare at her, not letting on how relieved I am that she ruined my already failed experiment of kissing strange boys on dark beaches. My mouth still feels the weight of his tongue. Thick and fat like the August flies.
Most summer afternoons, after lunch and before coffee, when the salt from the sea bakes our sun-tanned bodies, we eat the food of funerals. Wheat grains, powdered sugar, golden raisins, walnuts, sesame, fresh parsley. When mixed together, the ingredients resemble the colorful jewelry beads brown-skinned girls sell at the summer street festival. Grandma’s friend who helps out at the village’s only church brings us the leftover koliva after every funeral service.
We eat outside, at the white plastic table set under our slanted beach umbrella. The cement burns under my flip-flops. The air has an iodine, pelagic taste, at odds with the trash rotting across the street.
If we leave the bowl of koliva unattended, flies swarm it. They land on the sugar clumps, getting stuck. Greedy, secretive bodies that look like onyx beads in the bowl of funeral food.
A couple of summers later, Grandma catches me again, this time with a girl. We sit on fluffy towels, our heads tipped to the sky. The girl under the stars is a different kind of brown, not like the Romani girls selling candles outside the church or animal-and-superhero balloons at the promenade, the girls Grandma always gives a wide berth to as if they’re contagious. This girl is the rich tourist kind that rent luxury summer apartments in the Peloponnesian gulfs. Not that it makes any difference to Grandma. She’s a girl, and she’s brown, and that’s all Grandma’s cataracted eyes see.
Yet she says nothing about it. We, as a family, are good at pretending.
“Your father drove down here all the way from Athens. Come greet him.”
I follow Grandma’s hobbling steps, knowing that by the time we reach the house, my father will be snoring in the spare camp bed. It’s what he always does: he sleeps our lives away.
A girl is an orphan without her mother.
In the middle of the night, I scale our locked gate and walk down the loose-dirt path, following the sound of water. I sit on the lightless beach, the pebbles cool against my bare thighs, and listen to the low rumble of the sea. My scalp still tingles where the girl’s fingers touched me earlier, braiding my hair. She made me feel like a chrysalis on the verge of opening up. I haven’t decided if the lips I’ve yet to kiss will taste like the salt that comes from the ocean or the sugar that comes from funerals.