“Heaven”by Shiv Kotecha
The first and only time Andrew and Jai visited Greece together, they stayed in two adjacent bedrooms facing the sea on an island in the northernmost part of the Dodecanese, Patmos. They stayed in Skala, a worn port town in a small harbor where ferries, cruise ships, and patrol boats came and left the harbor in timely rotation. Tuesdays and Thursdays brought and took away the Europeans, those who stayed— some Swiss, but mostly Greeks from the mainland, and thankfully not many families. Wednesdays and weekends, however, brought in cruise ships with the families—some British, but mostly French—for 2 to 3 hour excursions on the island; these visitors usually spent their afternoon visiting the Cave of the Apocalypse, halfway up the central mountain formation, between Skala and the fortified city of Chora, where St. John, who, after getting plunged into boiling oil in Rome and suffering nothing from it, was exiled and is said to have received, while there, his revelation of the end of the world. Twice a week these oversized, white ocean liners’ anchors cranked down into Skala’s small port for just long enough for passengers to go up the mountain, get their blessings, descend, and leave.
They stayed up drinking Retsina, the cheap white Jai stocked up on as if he were John in exile. Retsina is a white wine that is fermented with pine sap. Once it was poured into vessels, Ancient Greeks used the pine resin to plug the crevices between the slats of wood—so as to keep the wine from oxygen and from wine-hungry bugs—but the sap, naturally, bled through the cracks, tainting its flavor as it dissolved into the wine grape mash. Neither crisp nor sweet, it rests heavily on the tongue, and leaves the mouth oily. Lore has it that, on two occasions, Greek citizens put poison instead of sap into the crevices of some royal retsina barrels to kill two tyrannical emperors. It has since become a cheap, popular beverage, even though many Greeks find both its taste and legacy off-putting. Jai loved the stuff and Andrew could barely tolerate it, but he drank it for his friend.
Andrew and Jai were suspended in a loop: coming home from the beach only to go back to it, retreating every evening to a spot in the sand in front of their flats, where they talked, drank, and, when it got late, looked for men on Grindr. They refreshed their phones’ screens in unison, pulling the square grid of the app down. They were strangely relaxed in these moments, when they were silent, watching the gray dial turn, followed by a flicker, followed by the same 20 to 30 images of faces, torsos and Euro sunsets that appeared before them, just as they had the drunken night before.
“I mean,” Andrew began, “he seems kind of weird from what I can tell.”
“Can I see?”
“One sec,” Andrew said as he wrote to another guy. “Okay, look.”
“I already talked to him.” “Right.”
“Swiss. Here with his girlfriend. Sends the same two pictures over and over again.”
Behind their screens, in the ocean, something, maybe a child, splashed briefly. The last of the boats had left the harbor, and steep hill of seaside apartments that ridged Skala had settled down for the night. The last of the guests at Tzivaeri, the tavern next door, had dined and gone home. Their neighbors Nikos and Giannis had shut off their lights. A few kittens nearby ate the last of the fish heads the friendly grandmother from the flat above left behind for them and slept.
“This place sucks.” Jai said.
Andrew agreed: “Restricted, falc, Hey Mister, Green Greek love, Athens, Plant, Fist, Athens2Patmos, Constatine, Rusky, S, Fig Leaf, S, Blue, Ask, Sam, Crying, Kosmos, Fun- timer, noAznsorwhite, Chora4u, Rich, Book thief, Marcel, Skalaboi—what the fuck is this.”
“Do you want some ouzo? I brought some.”
“At least all these boys will be gone tomorrow.”
“Yep. The boat guys will take them away and the boat guys will give us more.” Andrew continued, self-satisfied as a Greek chorus, “You know the drill. Right now it’s time to wait.” He looked down, refreshed his phone.
Jai went in and poured out two glasses of ouzo, throwing a splash of water. He stuck his finger into each and stirred; the liquor swirled and got foggy. It sloshed over the brim of both glasses and onto Jai’s hands as he stumbled back out to Andrew.
“Aspro pato,” Andrew said, the Greek equivalent for “bottoms up.” “‘White bottom’—just your type”
They clinked glasses. Jai wiped his mouth with his hands, his hands with his trunks, and took a seat. He took this brief phoneless moment to look out at the sea. There wasn’t much going on. He tried focusing on the horizon, a straight line that divided one shade of night from another. Then two lines, rotating. What was that. They had doubled: Jai had the spins. Oh fuck. The ouzo had gotten to him quick, and he hoped Andrew wouldn’t notice. He tried to hide his anxiety by taking a sip and sitting up straight.
Andrew was telling a story about a night he once spent with a lover in a hotel room in New York. The lover showed him a YouTube video of two guys fishing Boston Harbor who come across a giant sunfish and, for the span of about six minutes, try to figure out what it is, try to catch it, and eventually try to kill it. Andrew, while he searched for it, told Jai how the video led to the hookup.
“I don’t know what it was, but we like looked into one another’s eyes as the video played and then . . . bam! . . . we tore off each other’s clothes. The whole night was really weird,” Andrew confessed. He left out who the man was and why they were at the hotel. He did nothing to advance the plot. “I even ended up bottoming. And I only bottom when I’m in love.” Andrew seemed to notice Jai wondering how a fish video led to sex, and added, turning to him, “ I bet it was the Mariah that plays in the background.”
But Jai wasn’t paying attention. Out of fear that Andrew would notice his drunken attention flag or his eyes flutter, he had set up a small task for himself: to, while sitting straight, and in the absence of available trade, think about some of the other men, the pale ones, he had once read about in novels, Dostoyevsky’s, say, who also felt like they had to suddenly retreat inward, pull back from whatever situation was at hand, and become seriously physically altered, independent of what made them feel that way in the first place: a placelessness, followed by pearls of sweat, followed by a definite pallor, sometimes even a quick falling down:
“I even gazed at you in wonder: you had such astonishing hair, almost perfectly black, with a lustrous shine, and not a trace of gray; moustache and side-whiskers of a jeweler’s finish—there’s no other way to put it, your face was matte pale...”
“The hand that held the goblet seemed to stiffen and did not move; his breathing was labored and difficult, his head sank back...His eyes too grew dim, at last, and his eyelids dropped as though they were made of lead. A deadly pallor overspread his face...”
“For sometime his lips twitched and quivered as though still trying to articulate—and suddenly a big hot tear hung on his eyelash, broke and slowly ran down his pale cheek”
“Two seconds, not more, were spent in actual struggle, then someone gave a violent shove, and then a man, very pale, strode into the room.”
“There was a determined gleam in his eyes; at the same time there was a deathly pallor in his face”
“What was particularly striking about the young man’s face was its deathlike pallor, which gave him a look of exhaustion in spite of his sturdy figure, and at the same time, an almost painfully passionate expression, out of keeping with his coarse and insolent smile and the hard and conceited look in his eyes...”
Everyone was having a panic attack, Jai thought, so as to assuage his own. As Andrew turned to him, he grew stiff and sweaty. Andrew was waiting to be asked who it was, which only deepened Jai’s nerves.
Shortly though, it hit him: I may be calmed by the fact that at least I will never be as pale as the men in a Dostoevsky novel, or as pale as Andrew, when they felt an similar emotion. And because of that, unlike them, I can always hide it. He broke his silence.
“I’m the opposite. I only think I can top when I’m in love, honestly. Which I haven’t been for years, and which is a dumb thing to say, anyway.”
“Jai, we gotta get back to the city. I don’t know what I’m going to do. What the hell is this fucking picture?” Andrew had had enough. He pinched his screen and switched apps.
Jai refreshed their drinks while Andrew pulled up the video.
“Oh, it’s here, look.” Andrew offered Jai the phone.
“What the hell??” Andrew tilted the screen of the phone. On the screen and below the surface of the water hovered a sunfish.
“I don’t know what this is... but Jay, Jay, it’s a fuckin’ big sea turtle.” One of them slid behind the other, far back, perhaps to get a better look. Andrew’s voice was now muffled by ocean water and breeze: “It’s a baby whale, look.”
“Look, it’s a baby fucking whale man, Holy shit! We are witnessing a baby fucking whale right here, ho-ly shit! That thing is big, Jay, what is that thing, it looks hurt!”
Skeptical, Jay responded, “I don’t know.”
“That thing that looks hurt, Jay...Jay that thing is hurting bro...ho-ly shit look at this fucking thing!”
“Oh my god, what the fuck is that bro?” “Jay, what the fuck is that.” The water, limpid but loud, splashed, and below its surface, a gigantic sunfish, whose mouth, tilted laterally, sieved water in and out—and whose gray flat, disc-like body, was pictured clearly as it breached—bobbed along with the mellow tide.
“Oh man, pull back up, Jay! Come on!”
“Come on bro, pull back up bro...We seeing some shit we had never seen before, kid. Oh my god, that thing looks dead, man! We gotta call the aquarium or something dude. Oh, man, look at this fucking thing. At this point, as Andrew had promised Jai, Mariah Carey’s “Fantasy” began to play in the background, though it was muffled by the splashing of the sea, the screaming of the two men, and the lo-fi quality of the home video. But there it was: a slinky Tom Tom Club sample and the coo: “I’m in heaven / with my boyfriend / my laughing boyfriend.” Jai was laughing too. He felt a little delusional even, looking up at laughing Andrew and then back at the screen, where another Andrew and Jay squealed with delight at the arrival of a great big sunfish they seemed to have wanted for so long. Jai imagined what it would be like to catch a fish. Drunk, he sang, “my laughing boyfriend.”
“Holy shit, what the fuck is that. Oh, man, Jay, it’s dead bro, or something.”
“Oh my god, Jay! Pull right up next to that shit, Jay!
“Oh man, look at this fucking thing! Oh ma-an! Look at that Jay! Ho-ly shit, what the fuck is that kid? You wanna try t’ pull it in? Let’s hook it! Oh man, that thing’s just dead.”
“It looks like a fucking baby whale.”
“You got that on video—?
” “Yeah, come on-n let’s fucking, let’s fucking pull up next to that shit, bro, let’s help it.”
“Oh, oh man, we’re calling the coastguard. HO-LY shit!”
Jay grabbed Andrew by the shoulders. He too had lost it. Mariah slid into the second verse of her song, “Images of rapture / creep into me slowly / as you’re goin’ to my head (I like that),” and they embraced, jumping up and down.
“Jai, stop. There it is right here, Jay! Oh, oh man look at this whale, Jay. Ho-ly shit, what is that fucking thing?”
“It’s a big flounder...”
“If that’s a flounder ma-an...Let’s pull it in Jay— Come on. Jay, Jay, we can get some big money from that if it’s a fucking fish buddy, come awn! Let’s fucking hook that shit, and we’ll be on the fucking news, man. What is that thing?”
“It needs help, whatever it is, dude it’s dying.”
“Holy Shit...Will you look at this shit? Oh my god, Jay. Jay, look at this fucking thing! Jay, let’s get it.”
“But he’s dying.”
“No it’s not! Oh, man, Jay, He’s a fucking—THAT’S A TUNA, BRO!”
Jai couldn’t hold himself together. He’d taken the phone into his own hand and was singing along with Mariah. So quickly was he able to step out of his panic: “‘Sweet, sweet fantasy baby’—Andrew, this video is so good.”
Andrew slapped him on the back, “I told you.”
“Jay, that’s a fucking tuna or something. Jay, look at it, come on...”
“No, no! It looks like a flounder, with a, with three ah, fins...”
“Oh, man, Jay, let’s pull it in dude!” The wind really picked up as Mariah faded out. “Oh man, you guys are witnessing what me and Jay, this is Andrew Berrigan and Jay Foster, we’re about ready to pull this monstrous fucking thing on right here. (Steve, I hope you’re watching, buddy). Ho-ly shit, will you look at this fucking thing? What is that thing, dude. Oh—God look at this thing. Oh, my—Look at this fucking thing. Holy shit. Holy shit, Jay. Oh my god. Jay’s gotta little fucking hook? Are you fucking shitting me? Oh my god. Oh, we got it! Oh shit, Jay, oh my fucking God. Oh! We need to fucking go get that shit bro, oh, man, we need fucking help buddy.”
They could hardly hear each other at this point.
“It’s dying. . .” repeated Jay. He was seeing something Andrew wasn’t. “JAY! No.”
But that is still meat on that fucking fish, kid! Am I lying?” The video then ends, “Fucking crazy.”
By the end of the night the sunfish moved on, as they did, but not before falling into an inexplicable stupor. Jai and Andrew looped the video repeatedly, laughing for hours and continuing to down retsina. They left the apartments. They jumped into the water. Later, Jai snatched a woman’s purse from her, and Andrew, in an even worse state, lost his keys, his clothes, and his way back to his apartment, just as he had once written in his novel, but, this time, without any men or any deer to lick his ass or his asshole. Pity, he thought. Andrew could not feel it happening to him, but suddenly, he turned sickly pale.
Shiv Kotecha writes poetry, fiction, and criticism. He is the author of The Switch (Wonder, 2018) and EXTRIGUE (Make Now, 2015). Other writing can be found in frieze, Art in America, and Convolution and on Troll Thread and GaussPDF.