A Pure Acetylene Virgin Attended By Roses 

“The beautiful die young and leave the ugly to their ugly lives.” A story, set against the bleak concrete jungle of mid-1990’s Athens, Greece, that confronts the brutal reality of domestic violence and the intense longing many have for a place to call home…

by: Angela Patera

Trigger Warning: This story contains references to domestic violence that might be disturbing to some readers.

Athens in August was a suffocating beast. The sky hung heavy and stagnant, choking the life from the city’s concrete jungle. Each breath felt like a furnace blast, leaving a burning fog in my chest and a film of nauseating sweat clinging to my skin. “Earthquake weather,” Grandpa used to call it, his eyes scanning the horizon for tremors only he could sense. Though I never really understood Grandpa’s celestine prophecies, I always took his word to heart. “Let’s hope there’s no earthquake today,” I added. Balancing a dog-eared copy of Enid Blyton’s “First Term at Malory Towers” on my knees, I took the first, triumphant lick of a vibrantly colored  — and otherwise forbidden — popsicle, its sugary sweetness a burst of colorful rebellion against the oppressive air.

The salty tang of the sea still clung to my hair from my morning swim as I perched on the rickety brass rocking chair on our balcony, popsicle clutched in one hand and Malory Towers in the other. Darrell’s adventures in a world of pristine dorms and rock-hewn, freshwater swimming pools unfolded before me, a cruel contrast to the reality looming just days away — my school, derelict and forsaken, a place of chipped concrete and echoing emptiness. No swimming pool, no gleaming hardwood basketball court, no reading room for socially reticent bookworms, just a dusty schoolyard that we shared with the local vocational high school, littered with the detritus of teenage angst, cigarette butts, and crushed Coca-Cola cans.

The air, thick, humid, and stagnant like a swamp, pressed down on my chest with each shallow breath. My escape into Malory Towers was shattered. Every now and then, the relentless assault of the Athenian summer would distract me — a flash of faded pink, a woman in a nightdress cleaning her balcony on the fifth floor of the towering block of flats across the street, the pulsating rhythm of a boom box throbbing old-school hip hop from somewhere nearby, a blur whizzing by, the fleeting image of a teenager riding his BMX down the street, the aggressive buzz of a bee flying around my Mum’s hydrangeas. Suddenly, with a slam, I shut the book. I couldn’t concentrate. The suffocating weather only amplified my simmering frustration. Tears welled up, a tide of pre-teen angst and a nameless fear threatening to spill over.

A distant rumble of thunder echoed across the horizon. “I hope I don’t get a migraine today,”,I muttered to myself. That was a borrowed phrase as well, a shield my Mum used to raise against the onslaught of oppressive days. Torn between diving back into Darrell’s adventures and succumbing to the siren song of my Nintendo Gameboy, I was jolted by a sudden, unmistakable rattle, Mrs. Rose’s French doors shuddering in their ancient frames.

Mrs. Rose came from a small place called Rodmell. When she first announced it with a touch of pride, her eyes scanned my blank face for a flicker of recognition, a spark that sadly never ignited. A vast emptiness greeted her pronouncement, a wasteland behind my eyes. “Rod-mell,” she had repeated, enunciating each syllable. “Where Virginia Woolf spent the last twenty-one years of her life?” She had paused, expecting a gasp of literary awe, but I had remained stubbornly clueless. Undeterred, she continued, weaving the tales of St. Peter’s church with its stained-glass windows and Monk’s House, a beautiful cottage where life’s great questions were debated amongst rolling meadows and fragrant gardens by the Bloomsbury Group. With a broad smile plastered all over my face, I maintained a façade of enthusiastic agreement. Yet, the moment the front door clicked shut behind me, I bolted to my mother’s room, heart hammering a frantic rhythm against my ribs. Bursting through the door, I blurted, “Who’s Virginia Woolf?” secretly hoping Mrs. Rose’s keen ears wouldn’t pick up my literary ignorance through the open windows.

Mrs. Rose moved into the apartment upstairs with her stern-looking Greek husband the year prior. He was a Roman statue come to life, towering and broad-shouldered with jutting brows and sculpted muscles that threatened to burst out of his army uniform. His default expression ranged between scowl and disdain. His off-duty attire consisted of tight khaki everything, pants that clung to his bulging thighs like a second skin and sleeveless t-shirts that showcased arms that looked like they had been chiselled from granite. Mrs. Rose always tried to soften the blow with her polite demeanour but her husband’s permanent scowl seemed to have a gravitational pull, warping the sunshine out of even the brightest day. Mum insisted that he was a high-ranking army colonel which supposedly explained the sternness to some degree. To me, he could have been a space invader for all I cared. “I just don’t like his vibe”, I would whine to Mum, milking every syllable for maximum dramatic effect.

Mrs. Rose was my English tutor. She had studied Classical Archaeology at Oxford. On a field trip to Delphi, the ancient sacred precinct, she met her angry bull terrier of a husband. She was there seeking the final thread of her thesis on the Pythia of Delphi, while he, a soldier, was enjoying a brief sunlit furlough. She had recounted that story a hundred times, supposedly to illustrate verb conjugation. Each retelling, however, felt less like an academic exercise and more like a desperate attempt to convince me — and most probably herself as well — that their unlikely union was divinely ordained, a love story ordered by the Oracle.

I had heard Mum tell Grandpa that Mrs. Rose looked like a delicate flower that had been planted on the wrong side of the garden, a fragile violet wilting amidst the fiery bougainvillea of our country. She too was frail, the relentless Mediterranean sun turned her translucent arms a mottled red, “scorched to the roots!” she would often rasp while retreating into the cool darkness of her house. The humidity aggravated her asthma, a struggling rasp that echoed through the thin walls. The incessant gridlock and the cacophony of the motorcycle mufflers and car horns scraped her already frayed nerves raw.

Even my naïve, pre-adolescent mind, oblivious to the world’s complexities, couldn’t be deceived by the faint smile trying to mask an untold pain. Mrs. Rose ached with a homesickness that threatened to engulf her. “Rodmell” she would sigh. “Rodmell feels like a universe away.” I couldn’t grasp it. Grandpa had assured me it was a simple journey, a plane to London, then train or bus to Rodmell. Yet, in Mrs. Rose’s voice, Rodmell sounded like a place from another dimension, a mythical land beyond reach.

The air in our apartment grew thick whenever the fights upstairs erupted. Angry shouts and muffled cries vibrated through the wooden floorboards, a constant undercurrent of tension and sadness. Sometimes, our own house reverberated with the unmistakable sound of glass shattering against a hard surface and the sickening screech of furniture scraping the floor. My stomach would clench. If it was daytime, Mum would shove a fistful of coins into my hand and send me to the 7/11 down the street to buy a carton of milk. If I returned too soon and the battle above our heads was still raging on, Mum would fabricate a story on the spot to create a distraction. “Let’s bake a cake, love,” she would say, her voice strained and her hands trembling as she thrust crumpled bills into my palm. “Ride your bike to the supermarket, won’t you? We need flour, sugar, oranges, and butter, not margarine, butter! Now, go!” If I came back home from this supposedly complicated mission and the chaos above our heads hadn’t subsided, she would attempt a shaky joke. “Oh dear, it sounds like Rosie and the colonel are redecorating their house again”.” Of course, I wasn’t fooled. I knew the truth. Mrs Rose’s pearly arms were often covered in angry purple bruises and her eyes were perpetually rimmed with red. Hay fever, they said. But I knew better.

One night, their fight escalated into a terrifying frenzy. Mum, unable to bear it any longer, stormed upstairs to confront the Colonel. I lay in bed, paralyzed with terror, picturing the Colonel’s hands, perpetually clenched into fists, around Mum’s throat. I held my breath, waiting for the inevitable crash of shattering glass. But it never came. An unnatural silence followed Mum’s midnight charge upstairs. The moment she walked inside our apartment, the fight resumed. Defeat hung heavy in the air. Driven by a mix of fury and fear, Mum called the police. Unable to lull myself to sleep, I crept out of bed and watched from my bedroom window as two patrolmen appeared, bathed in the yellow glow of a streetlamp. They lumbered into the apartment block looking weary and dishevelled. I heard the growling ascent of the elevator and the familiar chime of Mrs. Rose’s doorbell. I strained to hear, standing on tiptoe on top of my desk, but the conversations remained frustratingly muffled. After a short while, the elevator groaned again and the policemen emerged from the apartment block, their retreat as uneventful as their arrival. Thirty minutes later, the fight upstairs resumed, a chilling reminder of what Grandpa often said: “Some battles have no victors, only casualties”.

The pitter-patter of summer rain tore me from my book. I glanced around, momentarily disoriented. The drumming of the rain against the balcony railing would have normally been a welcome contrast to the scorching heat but it seemed to mimic the drumbeat of another, unwelcome rhythm- the echoes of the morning’s fight.

I still lay in bed with the damp bed sheets tangled around me when angry shouts and pleading sobs pierced our paper-thin walls. My heart hammered against my ribcage. I was about to climb on top of my bookcase and stick an ear to the ceiling when Mom stormed in, swimsuit in hand.

“Grandpa’s off for a swim,” she announced, “and you’re going with him.”

A swim? The sky was a bruised grey. A sickly humid south wind plastered itself to my skin, promising a sea the color of lead, choked with clinging seaweed. Mom’s moods were like the tide, sometimes gentle, sometimes a force threatening to pull you under. Today, the tide was out and I knew there would be no room for negotiations. With a sigh, I surrendered to the inevitable.

As Grandpa drove, I stole glances in the rearview mirror. My reflection mocked me back — pale, plain, freckled. For a fleeting moment, I felt like I carried some unsettling resemblance to Mrs. Rose. The silence between me and Grandpa was thick and heavy with the unspoken tension of the morning. Finally, unable to bear it any longer, I blurted out, “Grandpa, do you think I’m beautiful?”

Grandpa grunted, his gaze flicking to the rearview mirror for a fleeting moment before returning to the rain-streaked road ahead.

“The beautiful die young and leave the ugly to their ugly lives.”

His words stung, leaving a bitter taste in my mouth. Confused and a little hurt, I pressed my forehead against the cool glass and tried to focus on the rhythmic swish of the wipers, the only comfort against the storm raging both outside and within.

When I came back home after the forced morning swim, everything was nice and quiet so I sank into the rocking chair on the balcony, seeking refuge in the worn pages of my book. A creak, then the unmistakable slam of Mrs. Rose’s French doors, jolted me back to reality. Once. Twice. Three times. The sound of the French doors opening and closing echoed, leaving me utterly confused. What could she possibly be doing? The colonel’s monstrous jeep wasn’t parked in its usual spot so, most probably, he had left and she was all alone. Was she lost in memories, flipping through leather-bound albums filled with faded photographs from Rodmell, sipping her special rose-petal tea, and smoking the bad world away? The French doors rasped open once more, followed by the unmistakable shuffle of her bare feet against the cool terracotta balcony tiles. Curiosity gnawed at me. I peeked over the railing, my heart pounding a frantic rhythm against my ribs. The balcony remained empty, yet the sound of hasty retreat filled the air. The French doors slammed shut with a finality that sent shivers down my spine. What was she up to? A moment’s yearning for cool air, only to be snatched away by a gigantic unseen hand. Like a moth drawn to a flame, then recoiling from the searing heat. I closed my eyes and tried to conjure her balcony in my mind’s eye. It was long and narrow, a mirror image of ours, but while ours overflowed with vibrant blooms, a riot of color and life, hers was a desolate wasteland. When they had first arrived, Mum had extended a neighborly welcome with a pair of rose bushes — one a velvety crimson, the other a blushing pink. Now, the skeletal remains of those roses mocked the empty pots, a testament to Mrs. Rose’s fading will to live.

A jolt ripped me from my reverie. A colossal, rogue chunk from my popsicle had staged a daring escape. A sticky, sugary avalanche cascaded down my thighs, painting a crimson warpath down my skinny calf, all the way to my brand-new, pristine tennis shoes.

“Goddamn it!” I hissed, darting sideways glances to make sure no one had heard me swear. I dabbed at the stain with the back of my hand, only to smear the disaster further. Crimson tears had melted a sugary path down my shorts as well as page 88 of Malory Towers. The carnage wasn’t contained to my shorts and book. The popsicle had planted a huge, sticky crimson kiss all over my Mum’s hand-embroidered cushions. I tore the cushions from the rocking chair and bolted for the kitchen, hoping that torrents of running water and a valiant dash of dish detergent would reverse my wrongdoings.

I had barely reached the sink when I heard Mrs. Rose’s French doors creak open again. Wrenching the tap open, I fumbled through under-sink cabinets, searching for a solvent fiercer than dish soap to battle the blooming scarlet stain. Suddenly, a whooshing sound, sharp and sudden, sliced the air, followed by a bone-jarring thud against our balcony railing. It sounded like a frantic bird slamming against its cage.

My head snapped around, catching a glimpse of nothing but a fleeting shadow. Before I could process it, a monstrous crack echoed from the street below. Panic, cold and sharp, flooded my gut. My hands, slick with soapy water, fumbled for the tap, but instead, the faucet handle twisted the wrong way, sending a torrent of scalding water on my hands and thighs. Screams erupted from the street, mingling with the hysterical shrieks my burning nerves sent to my brain. My feet, solidified into leaden weights, refused to obey, anchoring me to the little lavender mat Mum always placed in front of the sink so that we wouldn’t slip.

Mum suddenly stormed inside the kitchen, her face contorted in a mask of violent crimson. She lurched towards the window and yanked the flimsy drapes shut, plunging the kitchen into a chilling gloom. “Back to your room!” she shrieked, the hysteria in her voice raw and unfamiliar “Now!” It wasn’t the pain from the scalding water anymore, now a dull throb compared to the icy fear that had clamped down on my chest. Her words, laced with a terror I’d never heard before, tore through the haze of confusion. There was no room for questions, only a primal urge to obey.

I bolted for my bedroom and collapsed on my bed. A raw, physical ache pulsed through me, but it was dwarfed by something deeper, something I couldn’t name. It was the gnawing awareness of a fundamental dissonance. This wasn’t just physical pain, it was the agonizing ache of a world tipped off its axis, a reality fractured and unknown.

Mrs. Rose found her final rest in the slumbering cemetery behind St. Peter’s, nestled close to her cherished childhood home. Often, I would close my eyes, seeking solace in a vision of her finally on the sunny side of that garden. There, amongst the riot of wildflowers and vagrant violets, her journey to the unknown felt somehow gentler. It was less like a descent into darkness and more like a gentle meander through a forgotten paradise.

 

Angela Patera was born in 1986 in Athens, Greece. She is an ESL teacher and a mother. She studied English Language and Literature at the National University of Athens and pursued a Master’s Degree in Cultural Administration and Communication. Her main interest is the representations of womanhood, race, and disease in Culture (especially literature). Her stories and poems have appeared in Oxford Magazine, the Barnstorm Journal, Route 7 Review, Schuylkill Valley Journal, Wilderness House Literary Review, Tint Journal, The Bookends Review, Midnight Chem, the Active Muse, The Sandy River, and other literary journals. 

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