When I was eight, I was one of those little girls whose heart belonged to Daddy.
But for safekeeping, he said, he kept it in my chest instead of a mason jar in the freezer.
"Don't listen to him," Mom said when she saw the horror buttering my cute pixie face. "He's got all the dangly man parts, but your father's a weirdo drama queen."
In those days, my dad was over-the-top. Melodramatic. Greek. He announced every bathroom visit, passed gas like he was competing for a prize, and sported a six-pack when other dads had long passed the age where they cared about sucking in their guts.
In contrast, Mom was a solid American gal. A down-to-earth, easy-going, pancake-making realist. She had a face like a beauty queen, but she shunned blowouts for ponytails, heels for hiking boots, cosmetics for Chapstick. Her idea of high drama was cursing when she hooked a little toe on the coffee table, something that would drive even a saint to go foraging for f-bombs.
Somehow my folks had made marriage work, and the place they made it work for twenty years—before a bitch called cancer snatched Mom out of our lives and stuffed her in an early grave—was Portland, Oregon, a city where there's a coffee shop on every corner and rain in the forecast nine months out of twelve. In late spring, Portland won a brief reprieve when the rain packed its sodden bags and went to Florida to wait on hurricane season.
"Greece is paradise," Dad used to tell Mom, when she made fun of his Greek melodrama.
"Portland is like a witch's mouni. Always wet, always cold. I don't know why I stay here."
Their conversation always played out the same way. My mother's reply, by my eighth year, was as canned as a sitcom's laugh track. "So go home."
He would heave out a whale-sized, theatrical sigh. "How can I go home when I have the two of you tied to my ankle, making my life miserable?" He always topped it with a wink so I'd know he was kidding. If we were an anchor, he was moored someplace that made him happy.
"It's just his way," Mom told me. "The problem is that Greece has the longest umbilical cord in history, and instead of nutrients it pumps delusions into your father's head. To him, Greece will always be paradise. Beautiful, virginal women. Perfect beaches. The best food in the world. No crime."
After a brief moment of panic on her part when I asked her to define virginal (she went with 'untouched'), I moved on to my real question.
"They don't have crime?"
Now there was a concept completely alien to an American kid. Crime was something we did better than anybody, except maybe the Mexican and Colombian drug cartels.
Mom, being a straight-shooter, said, "There is crime—that's the point. As much crime as anyplace else. But your father keeps Greece up on a pedestal. If he went back he'd die of culture shock."
When I went to my father later and asked him about crime in Greece, he scoffed. "There is no crime in Greece because we are Greek. We are civilized. We know better."
To eight-year-old me it sounded boring. I mean … what did they do for news? Even at that age I was aware we lived in a country that thrived on disaster. Advertisers counted on our addiction to atrocity. When I said it out loud, he laughed. "Greece is not boring. Come sit, I will tell you a story."
I remembered standing there for a moment, trying to decide whether to sit or not. Dad's stories had a way of turning horrifying and weird. Most of them featured a creature known as Baboulas, the Greek boogeyman. Baboulas was a terrible creature, one with a small army of lesser boogeymen who did its bidding. They would traipse out into the night, silencing anyone they considered a threat to their boogeyman way of life. There were only two ways to escape Baboulas, the way he told it: death or the Witness Protection Program—and the second one was kind of iffy.
In the end, I sat there wide-eyed, chin resting on my fists, as he spun the tale of Baboulas riding Pegasus into the Cyclades islands, to collect gold from a medicine man who had vanished with the gold and the medicine. Baboulas, upon discovering the medicine man's whereabouts, took the gold, swiped the medicine, and pushed the man off Pegasus's back into the Aegean Sea.
When he was done I said, "But you said there's no crime in Greece."
"That is not crime," he told me. "That is life."
Approximately twenty years later I'd discover he was wrong. It was both.