We were already on our third beer, looking at tourists sailing on the Aegean, when Nikos leaned over the table: “You’re not straight enough ’til you fuck a guy up the ass,” he said. It was 1991, and that was my last summer at my father’s village in Greece.
That fall, I left my country repressed and hungry, and lived around the world collecting Masters and working smart jobs, consuming liquor and drugs, fucking and getting fucked up the ass. But I never forgot Nikos’ paradox. I never got over that phallic pride and anal shame that ruled sexuality and gender roles in rural Greece. Straight or gay, masculine or feminine, fucking vs. getting fucked was the qualifier during my beginnings.
“Is this a Greek Orthodox cross you’re wearing?” My VP from work asked me, narrowing his eyes, during lunch in New York in the late ’90s.
“Yes,” I replied, apologetically, resisting the temptation to slip the cross under my shirt.
My VP pushed aside his potted shrimp, glanced at the investment bankers sitting at the table next to us, and undid the top button of his fine baby blue shirt. As he gave my gold chain an involuntary once-over, I thought of Nikos and how Greekness and pride—unprocessed masculinity, really—sells.
Our check arrived and I went for it. I paid for both of us in cash, though I didn’t have to, wasn’t even supposed to—I was a first-year Associate. My VP smiled like a schoolmaster who had just summoned his favorite rowdy student. “You’re an odd but proud fucker,” he finally said with a laugh, and a connection between being unrehearsed and being a man clicked for me.
I was good at amalgamation, at spinning—I had to, I was in management consulting—so I worked it to be the “peasant” Associate. I was spontaneous. I played up my Greek accent, worked-out without a Walkman, and used cabs instead of our car service. I talked to clients confidently, using grammatically wrong words like “optionality.” I saw a polished, feminine side in the white-collar man and I pounded it. Isn’t that what Nikos would have done?
“Strategic engineering,” I interrupted a colleague who rambled on about our firm’s “decision analysis-backed hybrid strategic alternatives” at a client-packed conference room.
“How mannish,” the client-lead said, playing with her necklace.
“We take risks ’cause that’s what men do,” I added, and eyebrows around the room rose.
“Pick up backgammon to learn how to deal with strategy and risk!” I talked back to my VP when he threatened me with sensitivity training. Whatever; a week later, he still asked me to pitch to the highest-yield client. I began having fun with phallic capitalism. I dealt with privilege like a man, as if luxury was an accident. A by-the-way. I lived in hotels—”to be next to the clients”—and slept around, sometimes with people I’d present to a few hours later. “In-the-know eunuchs,” I called Wallpaper-subscribing colleagues, only to share tequila and substances with them after hours. “It’s a guy thing,” I’d say with a shrug and step out for more supplies or sex. And that’s when I met Ira Sachs.
We were crossing Manhattan’s West Side Highway in opposite directions when we caught sight of each other and nodded. Ira was with a friend. Still, we shook hands and exchanged phone numbers. I never called, of course; I was already an addict—instant gratification was my only gratification.
But addicts somehow manage to find each other. Three, four years later we met again, this time online, either on Gay.com or Craigslist—neither one of us is sure. Astonishingly, we both remembered our highway encounter. We hooked up immediately and jumped into a brief, dysfunctional, and yet somehow caring affair. And when it ended, we were family. Became family. In that New York sense of the word. Ira opened his Greenwich Village flat and circle of friends to me. He accepted me as is: Ambien and otherwise dependent. “It’s OK to be an addict” was the motto at One Fifth, Ira’s apartment and salon for coming-out enthusiasts. “It’s what you do about it. Oh, and please don’t use that bathroom. There’s Xanax in there.”
Ira was an awarded film director, and I was in the business world. We didn’t have much in common and at the same time we did. We were both addicts managing millions in R&D or movie budgets. But that was 2006; everyone was a functional addict then. We got promoted and fired, only to land even better jobs and projects. We hid behind gung-ho Belstaff luxury and expensive bespoke pregnancies. Everything seemed possible, effortless, and connected. I even heard from Nikos, someone I’d lost touch with after leaving Greece. Actually, the email came from his daughter.
“My father is not comfortable with the computer,” she explained. She asked if I lived in New York. Had I been back to Greece for the Olympic games? Had I followed Greece’s run to the European Champions title or watched them win the Eurovision song contest? I read the pride behind her words. She wanted to study fashion in New York, “either at Pratt or FIT,” and wondered if I lived near the Meatpacking District, an area she knew off from Gawker.com. Spirits flew high on both sides of the Atlantic.
Three years later, in the midst of the financial who’s-next meltdown, One Fifth was still a court for gays, lesbians, and addicts. Ira did the math for you to help you change or sustain your life. He emailed “Monday first thing,” to find “the right writing class for you, now that you don’t work in Wall Street anymore.” He threw a bash for the friend who was moving back to Austin, or found a place for you to crash after you subletted your loft. “Come along to my support group at The Center,” he said with his soft-spoken, non-threatening voice. In a way, Ira became more important. “My life’s saturated with writers and agents,” he said when I told him that I had started working on a novel. “You’re one of us now,” he whispered.
In 2010, I decided to spend some time writing in Greece. I had open accounts to settle back home—family, friends, closets. What I hadn’t planned, though, was how hard it is to settle with the already-bankrupt. I landed in a suicidal country, itself deeply in the closet—financially, morally, and even sexually. With debt levels that Greece couldn’t support, the perfect drama was already unfolding. I saw Xenophobia in Xenios Zeus’ land. Anger, apathy, and the mundane escalated to a national level. The most beautiful starlet turned to porn and the country too, in a way. I’d gone back to find a bigger mess than myself. I left Athens for my father’s sleepy village, looking forward to spending some time with him, writing my novel, and recovering the safety net of my birthright’s dignity.
Goes without saying, I wanted to see Nikos too.
He’d gone fat and quirky. He looked pushed and pulled, his hands abused by the odd jobs he’d worked over the past twenty years. His daughter never left Greece, though she did move to Athens to work in a mall. A few beers in, I reminded Nikos what he told me in 1991.
“Really?” He laughed.
He stopped laughing. “These days you’re not Greek enough ’til you fuck a tourist up the ass.”
“But there are no tourists around anymore,” I said.
“You’re not Greek anymore. What’s in it for you?”
“A boss of mine called me a proud fucker once. At the time, I thought of you,” I said. “But now it looks like you’re just a hate-fucker.”
“What the hell does that even mean?”
“Nikos, fucking or not, there’s no pride left here,” I said.
Nikos looked out at the Aegean.
“You do know that I’m gay,” I said. “Right?”
“Did you hear what I just said?” I pressed.
“Do you have a villa in Mykonos?” Nikos asked.
“Do you own a yacht or something?”
“Then you’re not gay. You’re just a faggot.”
“My Proud Bankrupt Greek Soul” is a piece that the awarded director Ira Sachs prompted me to write for the community-building blog around his film “Keep The Lights On.”