On Falling for a Statue of Hermes in Athens
What Grant Ginder Learned in Greece
The first time that it dawned on me that I might be gay I was standing in the National Archaeological Museum of Athens. It was boiling—in my memory, the museum’s air conditioning is broken—and the group I was with had stopped in the sculpture collection to look at a statue of Hermes. It was big, life-size, more or less, and depicted the messenger god standing contrapposto, an elaborate chlamys draped over his left shoulder. Our guide explained to us that the statue was found in Atalanti, which is in the Greek regional unit of Phthiotis, and was created at some point in the second century BCE. In all likelihood, she went on to say, it was a marble copy of a lost bronze that dated two centuries earlier—a statue that, due to its distinct style, has been attributed to Lyssipos, one of the three most prolific sculptors of Classical Greece.
I cared about none of this. What I cared about was that Hermes was naked, and that Hermes was hot.
I don’t mean to paint this as some sort of sudden epiphany; I was 14 and had, for the past few years, suspected that I was somehow different, the sort of boy that parents called sensitive in public, though in private something else. For me, this was a primarily physical experience. I filled spaces differently, was how I have come to understand it. While the other boys in my class walked into rooms with an easy entitlement, like they owned them, I was cautious, excruciatingly aware of my body and the messages it sent. During PE, while the rest of my class raced to the soccer field or slammed hand balls against walls, I tended to hang back, and watch.
I think that, on a level that I could not yet articulate, I understood that while these other kids were allowed to play freely, I was not—that, for me, a missed goal or an incomplete pass would betray not just a lack of athleticism, but something more profound.
Anyway, I looked at the statue for a long time. The rest of the group moved on, turning their attention to the Jockey of Artemision, but I lingered behind, stealing a few more seconds with Hermes. I stared at his marble cheeks, his spirals of hair, his ears. I thought about how weird it was that a four-thousand-year-old piece of marble could afford me such clarity, and then remembered all the myths I’d learned where idiots like me fall in love with gods.
I had come to Greece to study for the summer at an American school just outside of Athens. I’m not sure how I first heard about it, but when I did I begged my mother to let me go. At this point I had only been away from home twice before. When I was in the third grade, my brother and I spent a week at a watered-down space camp in the mountains above Palm Springs, a place where we built bottle rockets and stared at the Milky Way with telescopes and learned how, with limited success, to look at an eclipse using a cardboard box. Then, four years later, I attended a summer camp outside Yosemite that was run by evangelicals—the sort of trim, blond Born-Agains who refer to Jesus as their bro and who are, in my experience, native to certain corners of southern California. Me being there was, in retrospect, something of an accident; I’m not religious, and neither is my family, and the fact that the camp was so militantly Christian had somehow escaped us.
Over the course of two weeks I made a single friend: an asthmatic named Adam who, like me, believed in the merits of evolution. While the rest of our cabinmates wake-boarded and prayed, we huddled together on the lawn in front of the camp’s mess hall, two heathens equipped with a single inhaler. On the day we were bused back to Orange County, we vowed that, having survived Hell, we would be friends for life. We haven’t spoken since.I understood that while other kids were allowed to play freely, I was not—that, for me, a missed goal or an incomplete pass would betray not just a lack of athleticism, but something more profound about my identity.
All of which is to say that I was startled when my mother said I could go to Athens. She will dispute this account, but in my memory, she agreed to the proposal readily, eagerly: after all, what better way to get rid of a kid for June and July than to send him across the Atlantic? In hindsight, there were other, more complicated factors at play. Later, for example, I would learn that her eagerness was in fact not to get rid of me, but rather to protect me: there were problems at home from which she wished to shield me, and shielding me meant sending me away.
My parents flew with me to Greece; it was their wedding anniversary, and after dropping me off, they had plans to tour Italy. The first thing I remember of Athens—more than its heat or its smog or its thrilling, crumbling ruins—is that my father’s suitcase never arrived. We waited at the baggage carousel for what seemed like hours and, after being told that his luggage was in Delhi, we checked into our hotel and bought him some new clothes. There are other memories that I have of that evening—of telling my mother that I was scared of being in this foreign place alone; of her reminding me that the hills outside the city looked like the hills in California—but mostly, I remember my father losing his suitcase. I remember how we walked around for hours so he could get a new pair of pants.
The school itself was in Kifissia, a suburb about 17 kilometers north from the Acropolis. Including myself, there were 18 students in the program. Half of us were American, and the other half came from all over: Bogota and Mexico City, Rome and Bahrain. Each morning we had four hours of instruction in classical antiquity and art history, and then, in the afternoon, another two hours in Modern Greek. Our teacher was a small, formidable woman named Eleni who had an encyclopedic knowledge of the Peloponnesian War and ancient funerary rites, and who told us we would die (literally—die) if we didn’t drink enough water. When our classes were over, we were picked up in two vans by a married American couple named Jackie and Wyatt who, along with shuttling us around Kifissia, also acted as our counselors, our de facto parents.
Typing this out now, I’m struck by how worldly it all sounds, how erudite, but trust me when I say it was not: we were, at our very best, teenagers in a country where we couldn’t write the alphabet. The vans were old, and often broke down, leaving us hot and stranded on the sides of Greek highways.
There was also the matter of Jackie and Wyatt who, as the summer wore on, became a subject of endless speculation for us. They were young, and good looking, and as far as we could all tell, had no real provenance—the sort of people you imagine being interviewed in a documentary about a cult. Jackie had short blonde hair and a lilting voice; Wyatt was tan, and carried around a copy of Einstein: The Life and Times, which I never saw him read. They went with us everywhere—to the beach at Marathon, to Mycenae and Nafplio—but when we tried to get to know them, when we interrogated them with questions about their lives, they offered little in the way of answers. They’d met in college, and now they were married. They arrived in Greece before we did, and they’d leave after we’d left. More or less, that was what we knew.
We stayed together—the 18 of us, along with Jackie and Wyatt—in an old inn that had been converted into a dormitory, a rambling place with a mossy swimming pool that was called, for reasons I can’t remember, the auberge. There was a courtyard, and a foyer, and a TV room where, at night, we circulated through the three movies the school had supplied us: Amadeus, David Fincher’s Se7en, and The Silence of the Lambs, which, after 12 consecutive viewings, we started thinking of as a comedy. Upstairs, there was a wing with rooms where the boys slept, and a wing with rooms where the girls slept, and while we were told we weren’t allowed to cross the boundary between the two, it was a rule that didn’t seem to concern Jackie and Wyatt.
But then, very few rules seemed to concern Jackie and Wyatt. They didn’t seem to mind when we missed curfew by a few hours, or when we smoked cigarettes on our room’s Juliet balconies. One night, a girl named Maria snuck a bottle of ouzo from the auberge’s industrial refrigerator and got so drunk she started puking on the stairs. Instead of punishing her, or calling her parents, Jackie opened her bedroom door, looked at Maria, and told her to quiet down.
There were romances. Molly, who I think was from Ohio, started cheating on her boyfriend back home with Dan, a 17-year-old who read Nietzsche and said things like “don’t let the bastards get you down” in Latin and listened to the Wallflowers on repeat. Jeanine, from New Jersey, hooked up with Luca, from Italy, while Rebecca and Raphael coupled off because they were both from Connecticut. These were furious affairs, played out in the auberge’s TV room and in the back seats of buses on the highway between Athens and Delphi. Molly said she felt guilty, but did she feel guilty enough to stop letting Dan read The Birth of Tragedy aloud to her? How would Jeanine make things work between Montclair and Rome?My easy relationship with Hermes turned into something else—a reckoning, a wrestling. The realization that I had in the museum, which at the time seemed so pure and exhilarating and clear, was now something that I battled gracelessly, clumsily.
Along with my friend Jessica, I followed these dramas like they were telenovelas. We gossiped and laughed—we still gossip and laugh—though, looking back now, I question whether there was also a part of me that felt excluded. At night, I’d listen as doors creaked open and closed, and as bare feet kissed the auberge’s tile floors. I’d slap the mosquitoes that feasted on my arms and, lying in bed alone, I’d close my eyes and think of Hermes.
In August, when the program ended, my father came to Athens to meet me. The plan was to stay in the city for a few days so I could show him around, and then fly back to California, where I’d get ready to start high school. We—the rest of the students and me—all left the auberge on the same day, with Wyatt and Jackie taking turns shuttling us to the airport or a hotel or wherever it was that we were going. I was one of the last to leave, and when the time came it was Wyatt who offered to drive me into the city’s center to meet my dad at the Hilton.
The traffic was bad—the traffic in Athens was always bad—and as we crept along in the van we listened to Greek pop and adjusted the windows until we found a cross breeze to relieve us from the heat. Then, when we were pulling into the Hilton’s driveway, Wyatt turned down the radio and said he wanted to tell me something: he and Jackie weren’t married, nor had they ever been. They’d only said that they had been married because they thought it would help them get the job. The tone of his voice was the same as it always was, caught somewhere between a riddle and a joke, and it took me a moment to realize that he wasn’t kidding, that he was, in fact, totally serious.
I remember looking at him, and trying to decipher why he had told me what he just told me. Was I supposed to share my secret now? Was I supposed to confess? If I was, then I failed him. Instead, I said something stupid—something like well, that’s a fun twist—then gave him a hug, and left.
In retrospect, I don’t think Wyatt wanted anything from me. While I’m certain he knew I was gay (as is so often the case in these situations, I was the last to know), I think he was content to let me figure that out for myself. Rather, I suspect what he was looking for was a sounding board, someone upon whom he could test out the reality that for the past two months he’d been avoiding, and to which he would presently return. He was not alone in this.
We had, all of us, been in the business of crafting our own mythologies. Molly and Dan couldn’t keep reading Nietzsche and listening to the Wallflowers because Molly and Dan had to go home. They had to fly back to Ohio, and take their drivers’ test, and study for the SATs—they had to, in other words, engage in the messy business of life, a process that our myths had, forever temporarily, kept in a state of abeyance.
Parts of this re-entry were harder than others. My easy relationship with Hermes turned into something else—a reckoning, a wrestling. The realization that I had in the museum, which at the time seemed so pure and exhilarating and clear, was now something that I battled gracelessly, clumsily. At school, I threw myself into an awkward charade to quell suspicions and prove rumors wrong. I got a girlfriend and ran for student government and joined the swim team (though this—joining the swim team—I’d later realize was probably the gayest thing I could have done).
Home was a different story. There, in private, I thrashed and acted out. I snuck my parents’ liquor and got obliterated on beaches. Above my bed, I’d hung a large Greek flag and beneath it each night I’d abandon thoughts of Hermes and make deals with the same God that I’d stopped believing in during my stint at the Christian camp in Yosemite: make this thing go away, and I’ll reconsider our relationship. Once, not long after I turned 16, I stole one of my parents’ credit cards and drove to John Wayne Airport, ten miles from my home in Orange County. I don’t know where I was planning on going, but I’m certain I would have gone there had my older brother not shown up a few minutes later. Had he not sat me down on a bench and convinced me to stay.
In Greece, though, I—we—were untethered, free from the baggage of back home, left to roam the halls of museums and fall in love with gods.
A few days ago, I spoke to Jessica, who remains a close friend of mine, and as the conversation inevitably turned to Greece she said she was shocked by how much I remember. I’m not. Some summers evaporate, or bleed into autumn; others remain crystalline and indelible. I can still hear the footsteps on the warm tile, I can still feel the vans rattle and die.
There is, I realize, a danger in this; the trouble with nostalgia is that it leads us to false stories, ones that conveniently erase the plot points we’d just as soon forget. In The White Album, Joan Didion famously warns us of this. She describes the process by which “We live entirely, especially if we are writers, by the imposition of a narrative line upon disparate images, by the ‘ideas’ with which we have learned to freeze the shifting phantasmagoria which is our actual experience.” It’s a damning accusation, one that speaks to the mental fragility of writers, our incessant need for meaning.
In this case, though, I think I’m willing to shoulder it. Some moments—some summers—deserve our narratives. They deserve our myths.
Grant Ginder’s Honestly, We Meant Well is out now from Flatiron Books.