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Flight of Fancy
By D. A. Ratliff
Aristotle Elena Rossi stepped off the bus and promptly sat down on the bus shelter bench. She was half a block from home, an apartment above her family’s restaurant, but was reluctant to face them. No one would be happy about her news. Not anyone alive anyway.
She leaned back against the glass shelter wall and gazed toward the sky in time to see a commercial jet appear in the space between the giant skyscrapers. Seeing a plane always tore at her heart as it represented both tragedy and hope.
How was she going to tell them? She uttered a nervous laugh. It wasn’t certain, but it was possible, and she had to tell them. As the plane passed beyond her view, she closed her eyes as her thoughts drifted to the meeting with Dr. Bryant, her advisor, who messaged her to see him after her last class.
“Sit down, Aris. I have some news.”
He handed her a document, and upon reading the heading, she gasped. The National and Kapodistrian University of Athens, School of Philosophy. She raised her eyes to Dr. Bryant, afraid to read further.
“Yes, you are a finalist for one of the fifty positions in the program. Congratulations.”
Aris sucked in a breath. “I never thought I would get this far.”
“I know the odds were long, but your grades are excellent, your knowledge of the Greek philosophers as strong as any faculty member at CUNY, and your submissions essay outstanding. I’m not surprised.”
“I couldn’t have gotten this far without you. Thanks.”
“My pleasure. It’s my understanding the committee will meet shortly after the semester ends, and the finalists’ grades along with a recommendation from faculty will count toward the final selection, which should be announced by July 1st.”
As she rose, Dr. Bryant added, “Aris, I hope your family realizes how important this is to your future.”
“I hope so, too.”
Looking again at the now-empty sky, she dreaded what awaited her. No time to linger, she headed down the block to her fate.
Papa Nico’s Greek Restaurant, known as one of the best Greek eateries in Manhattan, was preparing for dinner. She shoved open the door and stepped inside, the spicy aroma of tonight’s special wafting toward her.
Her ya-ya Sofia sat behind the cash register. “Ah, Aris, my favorite granddaughter.”
She kissed her ya-ya on the cheek. “I’m your only granddaughter, but I love it when you say that. Where’s Mama?”
“She’s in the office with Dorothea, tallying up the lunch receipts.”
“Thanks. I need to talk to her, and then I’ll be back to take the phone orders.”
Walking along the corridor past the restrooms, she faltered and nearly ran but remembered her father’s final words, which gave her strength. She rapped on the office door.
Her mother, Medina, beckoned her in. “How was school? Hard to believe you almost finished with your freshman year.”
“Good.” She paused. “Mama, I need to talk to you.”
She glanced at Dorothea. She wanted to talk to her mother alone and hoped her aunt would catch on. Her aunt did, but her mother shook her head. “No, stay. We are family.”
“Mom, last semester, Dr. Bryant talked to me about a program that offered a semester of study in philosophy. I decided to pursue it and filled out the application and submitted the required essay. Dr. Bryant informed me this morning that I’m among the finalists for one of the fifty slots in the program. I’ll know in July if they select me.”
“Darling, that’s wonderful! Why didn’t you tell us?”
Here it comes. The moment she feared. “The program is at the University of Athens, in Greece.”
The color drained from her mother’s face. “In Greece? You would have to fly there. No, no — you’re not getting on a plane. That’s final.” Her mother fled the office.
Tears spilled from Aris’s eyes, and Dorothea rushed to hug her. “My little one, I know it’s difficult, but your mother has never gotten over your father’s death. You know that planes frighten her, and she is only trying to protect you.”
“She has to stop. All of you have to stop keeping me trapped because of what happened to my dad. It’s not fair.”
“You’re still a child and…”
“I am eighteen and old enough to make my mind up.”
“My precious Aris, they only want what’s best for you.”
“No, all of you want what’s best for yourselves. That’s to keep me here, in the restaurant. Pappouli only agreed to pay my tuition if I studied business and forgot philosophy.”
“You are studying both. Papa allowed you to follow your whim.”
“He only wants the family’s dream for me, not my own. No more.” She spun and stormed out. They were not going to defeat her dreams. Her father’s dreams.
Her shift ended at eleven p.m., and after she helped clean the dining room, all Aris wanted was to escape upstairs to her room. She was gathering her coat and books from behind the counter when her grandfather called to her.
“Aris, come here.”
She followed him into the dining room, where her family waited. The rattling of pans and the sound of the industrial dishwasher told her that her uncle Zander, Dorothea’s husband, and their son Alex, who was still in high school, remained in the kitchen cleaning up. Zander rarely involved himself in family squabbles. Her mother, grandmother, and aunt sat together at a table.
Nico Persopoulos stood before an empty chair and motioned for her to sit down. Years of habit spurred her to obey.
“Aris, your mother tells me you have applied for some study program at the University of Athens. As you know, I willingly pay for your education in business so that you’ll take over the restaurant when I am gone. This foolish wish to study philosophy will get you nothing in life. I am only looking out for your best interest. And for your mother. She suffered a great loss. While I never thought your father was good enough for her, he was a successful restaurant equipment salesman and helped in here in our restaurant when he could.”
Her chest hurt as if her grandfather had punched her. “I lost something too. I lost my father. All I ever had of him are the philosophy books he left me. He was going to take me to Greece to see where Aristotle, Thales, and Zeno lived. He wanted us to walk where they walked. He told me how much fun we would have…”
Her grandfather interrupted, his voice agitated. “Your father was a dreamer. Always had his head in the clouds and his face in those books. Your mother was foolish for naming you what he wanted, and now every day, you’re reminded of his obsession. This foolishness is not practical, and I forbid you to go on this flight of fancy.”
Her heart shattered, and she clenched her fists until her nails pierced her palms. “I’m over eighteen. You cannot stop me.”
She rose and picked up her books. Running toward the back staircase, all she could hear was her mother’s sobs.
Spring semester exams were a week away, and mid-morning, Aris grabbed a coffee and pastry for breakfast and sat at a bare wood table in the dining room. She was reading from a textbook on ancient philosophies.
The doors from the kitchen opened, and she raised her eyes to see her mother entering with fresh tablecloths. She had avoided her family as much as possible since she told them about the program, citing a need to concentrate on her studies. Being alone with her mother was the last thing she wanted.
Dropping the tablecloths onto a nearby table, her mother sighed. “I thought you would be at school by now. You’ve been hurrying out of here every morning for a month.”
“You know I have an early morning class, Mama, but canceled today because of exams.” She got up to get more coffee. The kitchen was busy prepping for lunch, and the smell of cinnamon and Greek oregano was filling the dining room. A wave of nostalgia swept over her. This restaurant had always been her home, but it was time for more.
As her mother busied herself spreading the tablecloths, Aris continued to read, waiting for the shoe to drop. Her mother would say something. She knew it. She did.
“Aris, you owe your grandfather an apology and an explanation of your behavior.”
“I did nothing wrong. All of you knew what I wanted to study since I was a child.” She took a breath. “For your information. I spoke to the scholarship department. There is a good chance I can secure an academic scholarship. If so, I’ll be changing my major to philosophy only. If the University of Athens program chooses me, the scholarship will remain mine for when I return.”
“I forbid you to go to Greece.”
“It’s one semester, Mama. Then I’ll be back.”
“No, I won’t let you travel that far.”
“You can’t stop me. I am old enough to do what I want.”
“You remember what my father said. You played it for me when I was little. I memorized every word. But when you realized that I shared his passion for Greek philosophers, you hid the tape. Never let me hear his voice again.” She was shaking so hard that she gripped the edge of the table. “You kept the only thing I had of my dad from me. He died one month before I was born, and all I had was a recording of his voice and his books. And you hid the answering machine from me.” She picked up her book, plate, and coffee cup. “I’m going. If I get the opportunity, I am going.” Turning toward the kitchen to take her dishes, once again, she heard her mother sobbing.
Aris was covering as cashier while her aunt took a break. With their relationship strained, the family spoke only when necessary regarding the restaurant. Only her grandmother had asked her how her exams had gone. Thankfully, they had gone well.
Dr. Bryant had called with news that he had sent her grades and recommendation letters from three of her professors to the selection committee. His contact assured him the committee would decide by July 1st so that the students could deal with personal issues and make travel arrangements. Now they waited.
Daydreaming about Greece, Dorothea startled her when she returned. “Sorry, and sorry, I’m late. I had something to do. Listen, when you get off tonight, come to my apartment. I have something to show you.”
It was nearing midnight when Aris knocked at her aunt’s third-floor apartment. Opening the door, Dorothea grabbed her by the arm and pulled her in.
“I don’t want anyone in the family to know you’re here. I have done something that will get me into a lot of trouble with my parents and your mother.” She smiled. “To be honest, I don’t care if they know but not until you know everything. Sit.”
They sat on the couch, and Aris noticed her aunt sneak a nervous glance at a small cardboard box sitting on the coffee table.
“First, I want to tell you about your mother. When your father died on that terrible day, your mother lost part of her soul. Papa didn’t like Theo because he didn’t want to work in the restaurant. His grandparents owned one, and he grew up working for them. He took his skills and began working for a company that sold equipment to restaurants. It was how he met your mother. Papa bought a new oven from him.
“Then 9-11 happened, and our world came to a standstill. Aris, your birth five weeks later was the joy we all needed but short lived because of your mother’s illness. Medina was already in a deep depression from losing Theo, and it only became worse after you were born. You don’t remember, and we never told you, but she spent eight months in a private hospital. Mama and I used to take you on the train to Queens to the hospital, hoping she would react. She developed such a phobia to planes that they installed blackout curtains in her room so she couldn’t see the planes from LaGuardia.”
“Why didn’t anyone ever tell me this?” Aris hoped her voice didn’t sound as shaken to her aunt as it did to her.
“Because Papa wouldn’t let us. She was his baby, and I never faulted him for protecting her more than any of us. The love between your parents was deeper than any I have ever seen, and as much as I love Zander, our love couldn’t compare. Your mother lost part of her soul that morning and never recovered. Her fear of planes and flying is deep seated now and why she is fighting you, but I also think that she feels that she is losing you to the same things that Theo loved. She is losing him again through you.”
Her aunt took a deep breath. “I heard you tell your mother that she had taken your father’s voice away from you. I knew you needed to have this with you and that we all need to face the fact that you are also Theo Rossi’s daughter, and his passion lives on in you.”
“I will not forgive her for that.”
Dorothea picked up the box and handed it to her. “I knew where Papa hid the answering machine.” As Aris opened the box, she continued. “I thought you should have the message from your father. I checked. It works.”
“I can hear him again?”
Dorothea nodded, and Aris threw her arms around her aunt. “Thank you.”
Leaving her aunt’s, she snuck into her apartment and quickly got ready for bed. Plugging the machine in, she slipped under the covers, pulling them over her head. She turned the volume down as low as possible and listened to her father’s final words. She was crying in her pillow as she heard her mother come in.
The next night after closing, she summoned the family to the dining room. After wrestling with her emotions, she had decided what to do.
“What did you want to say to us?” Her grandfather stood defiantly with his arms crossed.
She reached into her school bag and removed the answering machine. She heard her mother gasp but calmly plugged the machine in.
“Mama, I know this will be difficult, but all of you need to listen.” She pressed play. The tape was old with a bit of static, and her father’s deep voice was raspy and labored.
“Medina, by now, you may know what has happened, but my love, I won’t be coming home. A plane struck the Tower, and there is no way out of the restaurant. I need you to tell my parents that I love them. Nico, Sofia, Dorothea, Zander, thank you for bringing me into your lives. I beg you to take care of my Medina and our daughter.
Please, Medina, know I will love you for eternity. You are the love I wanted, and you have given me joy. I am sorry I will not be there to raise our daughter. Please give her the name we discussed. Aristotle Elena and call her Aris and play this message for her when she is older.
Aris, this is your father. I am so sorry I am not with you, but my love is with you always. Your mother will tell you of my passion for the ancient Greek philosophers. I want you to share that love. I have many books for you to read and had hoped one day to take you to Greece, where we could walk where Aristotle and the others walked. You must do that someday and know that I walk with you. I love you.
Medina, live your life and make our daughter happy, I will always lov…”
Silence met the end of the message. Aris paused before she spoke.
“This is why, if I am accepted, I will go to Greece — for my father.”
Aris took the answering machine and left hearing not only the tears of her mother but the tears of all.
Summer school started as Aris nervously awaited the committee’s decision. Two weeks had passed since she played the tape for her family, and tensions remained strained, but she was resolute. Her decision was made.
It was July 3rd and no word. Riding home on the bus after class, the lack of news discouraged her. As the bus rolled to a stop, she vowed that she would go to Greece regardless. Lost in her thoughts, she stepped off the bus, shocked to find her family waiting for her.
Her grandfather stepped forward, handing her a letter. “Dr. Bryant is a kind man. He allowed me to bring the news to you. Go ahead. Read it.”
Aris ripped open the letter to read the words. Congratulations, you are among the students selected for the program. Tears welling, she raised her eyes to her smiling grandfather.
“You were right all along. We were trying to protect you and your mother and failed you both. Your mother is going to see a psychologist so she can come to terms with what happened.” He handed her another envelope with an airline logo. “You are going to Greece.”
Medina hugged her. “I’m frightened for you to go, but it’s what you should do.”
Ya-Ya Sofia clapped her hands. “We made your favorite cake, yiaourtopita, to celebrate. Let’s go home.”
They walked toward the restaurant, her arm linked in her grandfather’s, as her mother, grandmother, and aunt excitedly discussed buying new clothes for her trip. Aris glanced up to see a plane passing above her.
She smiled. She was going to Greece to walk among the philosophers with her dad.
When I first saw this prompt, the events of 9-11 didn’t resonate until other authors mentioned it. Their comments triggered a memory, and once that memory surfaced, I needed to honor it.
A friend was a union organizer for the restaurant workers union and shortly before that day, had organized the workers at the Windows On the World restaurants atop the North Tower of the World Trade Center. After the attack, she spent the day with friends as no one wanted to be alone. When she returned to her apartment that evening, there was a message waiting for her on her answering machine.
The restaurant worker she had worked closely with during organizing had left her a message. He told her he called his wife to say goodbye. His message to my friend was to say thanks for her friendship, dedication, and hard work for their organizing effort. He wanted her to keep up the good work.
I have never forgotten his story and thought this was a way to honor all the victims of 9-11.
Please visit D. A. on her blog: https://thecoastalquill.wordpress.com/