Lessons in Love, Learned

She wiped off her lipstick with a tiny napkin and stared at my eyes dearly. I asked her why she did that. She told me that she just wanted to kiss me without compromising my public image as a straight heterosexual white male. I laughed. She laughed too. We were sitting at a tavern in Plaka, one of the most charming locales of Athens and a place that has summoned young Greek couples since time immemorial.

She was born and bred in Thessaloniki, so I transformed into something akin to a tour guide each time she travelled here in order to meet me. Maintaining an intimate relationship while living in different cities is a tough feat, so every time we saw each other in the flesh felt like an experience to be relished. She had scheduled to leave the following morning and I was praying for the night to extend to infinity. I couldn’t digest the fact that I wouldn’t be seeing her for so many months and I was already planning a quick trip to Thessaloniki in a month or so. Little did we both know that this night was destined to be one of the last that we would spend together in good spirits. It was a brief interval between leaving Ioannina and our journey to Thasos which proved to be the swan song of our liaison.

I met Despina when I moved to the small town of Ioannina for my post-grad studies in Greek Philosophy/Philosophy of Science in 2010. I rented a miniature apartment in the Castle, one of the town’s main tourist attractions, and settled to live there for a full year in accordance with the duration of the program consisting of two four-month semesters. I was going through a dark period in my life as I was battling with a severe case of depression that forbade any social activity, limiting my quotidian interactions to brief discussions with the owner of the nearby grocery store and, rarely, my landlord who didn’t like my face from step one. Despite the hardships I was facing, I was determined to attend the classes and do whatever was needed to become a model post-grad student. This was my chance to turn the tide in my favor for once. The first time I entered the listless building that hosted the Philosophy Department of the University, I saw her walking toward one of the exits along with another tall and impressive young woman whose name eludes my memory.

Even though Despina was not as flashy as the other girl, there was something in her aura that hinted at intelligence and elegance. She had long red hair and her pale complexion made her skin seem almost transparent. She wore glasses; however, they didn’t retract anything from the beauty of her almond-shaped hazel-green eyes. I must admit that I’m a sucker for girls in corrective eyewear since I was a little boy, a preference for which I still have no rational explanation to provide. Her thin lips and high cheekbones completed the picture of a gorgeous face with which I fell in love at first sight. She was neither obese nor emaciated and her frame balanced gracefully on the line that separates a lively body from a sluggish one. She was my dream girl, period.    

The first time we found ourselves sitting close to one another was during a course on Ancient Greek philosophy witnessed by four students. As we were a small group, after the end of the lecture, the professor, a middle-aged Plato devotee with a semi-bald cranium, asked if we were willing to join him for a coffee at a popular café near the city center. Feeling rather awkward, I was the last to agree.

We were divided into two groups that would embark on two cars: the first consisted of the professor, me, and a totally unremarkable girl of my age, and the second of Despina and her close friend, Veronica. The first crew would travel in the Professor’s car while the second in Despina’s.

After 20 minutes, we arrived at the center, and after several minutes of searching for a parking place, we got out of the car to walk the short distance to the café. Despina and Veronica were already there waiting for us. We sat down and the professor, seemingly oblivious of the fact that he wasn’t teaching a class anymore, started droning about the subtle differences between the Stoic and the Epicurean schools of thought, submerging us into the abysmal depths of pure boredom.

The four of us barely uttered a word during the first thirty minutes and I wondered what he was thinking when he suggested to follow him for a “relaxed” coffee break. I was sitting right opposite Despina, thus I managed to steal some glances at her symmetrical face with the perfectly applied makeup. Her sense of aesthetics was sublime. As I turned my head in the Professor’s direction, I felt her eyes on me, making me feel nervous. I was an outcast for too long and the eyes of the others on me always felt like little invisible daggers piercing my mind and heart. However, I found it inside me to look at her and that was it. Our eyes locked and a magic moment was born. Two days later, we had our first date which felt like dancing on top of the world. For the following two weeks, we were together 24/7 and it was like our two separate houses had been merged into one. It had been such a long time since I felt so vivacious, energetic, and happy. I started doubting whether I had been truly in love in the past, that’s how potent my feelings were. But things took a nasty turn after a botched holiday in the island of Thasos.

I am not the man to pick up the phone when it rings, and I’d neglected some of Despina’s phone calls since we both left Ioannina to return to our respective homes for summer. I couldn’t fathom how much I’d hurt her feelings until we met in Thessaloniki to make the short trip to Thasos, first by car and then by boat. What I saw was a different woman. It was like our special connection had vanished into thin air, she didn’t even want to be kissed, something that made me bitterly regret not answering her phone calls.

We were planning to stay five days there, basking in the sun and having carefree sex. However, what actually transpired was a series of heated arguments between us regarding major or trivial matters through which I saw a side in Despina that I didn’t know was there.

She belittled me with the first chance she got, and I stayed in a perpetual mode of self-defence, wondering where the woman I fell in love with only a few weeks back had disappeared. She wanted to hurt me; it was obvious, palpable even. I used to believe that she was essentially a nice person, kind-hearted and good-natured, but reality forced me to reconsider after that fateful trip. Eventually, we lasted only three days there and she drove me back to Thessaloniki to take the train to Athens. She didn’t speak to me even once while en route and I adopted a similar attitude towards her feeling in equal parts frustrated and saddened. We had broken up, that much was clear, and the bitter aftertaste overshadowed the good moments we shared, at least for a while.

Since then, thirteen years have passed, and even though we hadn’t been in any contact during that period, I never completely erased Despina from my memory. Her face and body cropped up in my head during many sleepless nights and gradually she became my most precious phantasy, helping me to survive my gloomy days. I couldn’t shake off the divine reminisces of the first few weeks with her and until today, I still think of this brief time stretch as the best of my life.

I saw her again in the center of Athens, outside the building of the University’s Law Department, on a cloudless spring day last year. She had aged well, added a few pounds around the waist but her face retained that special glow that lured me in so many years earlier. I saw her from a certain distance, and I pondered on whether I should talk to her. She was busy reading some papers while standing a few steps away from the staircase that led to the department’s entrance. Finally, I opted for the brave move and slowly marched toward her. When I was only two steps away, she turned her head and our eyes locked again, exactly as it happened then in that café in Ioannina more than a decade ago. She smiled and I smiled back, a genuine, honest gesture. I took the initiative to hug her and give her a soft kiss on the cheek. She didn’t reciprocate but it didn’t matter.

I asked her what she was doing there and told me that she was in Athens to attend a psychology seminar taking place in the building. She hadn’t completed her post-grad studies, as she couldn’t find an enticing enough subject for her thesis. Instead, she studied psychology as an undergrad for four years and she was now working in a group that helped individuals with PTSD. I told her about my news in short, what followed after I took my master’s degree, in a pithy manner, avoiding much detail. When I finished, she looked at her phone to check the time and told me that she was supposed to get back to the seminar. Right before we said our farewells, I told her: I see that you don’t wear lipstick today. She stared at me, dumbfounded. I continued:

That’s the last thing I remember from you, from us. You wiping off your lipstick to kiss me. I’ve kept that kiss alive for so many years. I was sensing your lips meeting mine in an infinite loop. I want you to be well Despina and know that I sincerely loved you. In a way, I still do. We’re all lost in one way or another. You are the woman I held on to since we first met.”           

I saw her eyes welling up and I took the satisfaction of touching a sensitive emotional chord. She didn’t say anything, turned away from me, and started walking up the stairs to the entrance. I sat behind for a long time. Didn’t she have anything to tell me? What was my place in her inner cosmos? I guess I’ll never know. But it doesn’t matter. Nothing can reduce my own feelings about her. She was my lesson in love. And I learned it by heart.


Dimitris Passas is a freelance writer and the editor of the online magazine Tap the Line, in which he reviews books, movies, and TV series while also featuring articles, news, and Q+As with authors and artists. His academic background includes bachelor studies in sociology and a master’s degree in philosophy. His work can also be found in ITW’s legendary magazine The Big Thrill and various online platforms such as DMovies, PopMatters, Off-Chance, Loud and Clear Reviews and others. His latest book reviews have been accepted for publication in the esteemed literary and film journals like World Literature Today, Alphaville and Bright Lights. Dimitris's short and flash fiction can be found in various literary magazines such as 34 th Parallel, The RavensPerch, Asylum Magazine (UK), A Thin Slice of Anxiety and several others.