Some stories are so amazing they must be told. This modern Greek tragedy, which takes place on the ancient island of Kalymnos, is NOT one of those stories. But like something that’s so bad it’s good, or when your hands are so cold they feel wet, this story is so “unamazing” that I’d be remiss not to include it in The Amazing Issue™.
We landed in Kalymnos after spending 40 hours in transit. The group included myself, Jen, Sam, Emily and Jason Grubb: our fall boy, the sidekick, the fifth wheel.
Grubb and I have a love-hate relationship. I hate him and he loves it. Grubb is a squat man-child with white teeth, vanity muscles and an indiscriminate libido that runs like the Colorado River in the spring. He’s the consummate libertine, a reveler with a certain childish exuberance that often attracts the fleeting adoration of the Self-conscious & Insecure. Yet somehow his antics are endearing, which can only be attributed to his unbounded positive attitude. Positron, we call him. Nothing brings Grubb down, and no matter how hard you try to resist, he will inevitably bring you up. This is a fantastic attribute in a climbing partner and friend.
I guess I should mention that a photographer was there, too. Photographers hide behind lenses and exclude themselves from the action. As a writer, I find their existences grotesque since they never play a very meaningful role in The Story, whatever it may be. In this case, the only relevant detail about this person is his name, Boone Speed, a disclosure that we writers call foreshadowing.
You now know everything you need to know. Prepare to be unamazed.
Kalymnos is a true paradise for climbers—a new concept. It wasn’t so long ago that climbing trips were called “expeditions,” and were big, royal missions to the Himalaya or anywhere else bleak enough to bring on the experience of suffering in tents and being whipped by the cold like shit-eating donkeys. Could anyone back then have predicted that hedonism and hard climbing would one day pair so well as they do in Kalymnos? Of course not! Because back then they didn’t have time machines … or hot tubs. Or hot-tub time machines.
Still, climbers inherently need a certain degree of physical suffering in order to have fun. No one had more “fun” than Jason Grubb.
Within hours of arriving, we found a merchant with an aversion to paperwork and he rented us mopeds to tour the island like a band of marauding outlaws. You don’t necessarily need mopeds to climb in Kalymnos; we just desperately wanted them. As soon as we accepted the keys to our bikes, the linear statistic of our projected life spans shrunk to a pinpoint not extending past our tickets home.
While we coupled down, the Fifth Wheel got his own moped—our choice, not his, and a situation that we all felt good about. Anyway, the thing that Grubb never seemed to comprehend is that when you rev the throttle to start the bike, you also need to hold the brake handle. I don’t know why, but this concept was above him. Every time he turned his moped on, it was like watching a pocket Hercules wrangle a bucking centaur.
Across the street from our apartment was a cave-like grocery store inhabited by a giant known as The O’Beese. This creature weighed close to 400 pounds and was in a perpetual opiate haze. On the first day, we went in the store while Grubb wandered off somewhere alone. The O’Beese was sunk into his fortified steel chair, both eyes closed and with his hands folded woodenly over his mountainous abdomen. We placed yogurt and Kalymnian honey on the counter. When he sensed our presence, he lifted his right eyelid, a blanket of flesh as heavy as the jowls of a basset hound, and estimated the food’s cost, which he indicated with the five bratwursts that were his fingers. We escaped from the market and went to our apartment, wondering where Grubb had gone.
All single males have this fantasy of arriving at a destination and meeting a beautiful single girl who climbs really well. But that never happens, does it? (Take a moment and try to count the number of single female climbers you know. Now count the number of single male climbers. See?)
Unless you’re Grubb, in which case it happens all the time. Upon returning to the apartment, we found the unthreatening man-boy sitting in the pool with a dark-haired bombshell. Her name was “Penelope” and she was a Perfect 10, traveling solo, in need of a partner, a good climber and really smart—an astrophysicist on tour through Europe giving lectures on her research. She and Grubb made plans to climb together the next day while we rolled our eyes.
Late that night, we took a moped ride through the romantic, saline air, and this imbued me with a sense of sovereignty and inner peace. Then Jen and I watched Grubb lose control and slam into the driver’s side door of an oncoming car. He crumpled onto the pavement while a small assembly of locals emerged, gasping and trying to help him up. But Grubb was as skittish as a cornered mouse, and he quickly juiced the throttle to flee the scene. Once again he failed to hold the brake; the tires spun at full tilt, firing the moped back across the street, yanking with it Grubb, whose feet pattered behind him on the pavement. Like a diesel-powered battering ram, the bike struck the side of a dumpster that belonged to The O’Beese, with an impact that knocked the wind out of Grubb. The booming reverberation petrified the crowd, which stood clenched in silence. A breathless Grubb hastily remounted the bike, and wove away into the night.
Jen and I parked and acted as if we didn’t know this person who had just achieved the all-time record of two separate moped accidents in less than eight seconds.
The chaos woke The O’Beese and he emerged, revealing to us for the first time his full and terrible gait. He lifted his pouched eyes, opened his arms and, to our great surprise, sang. The crowd joined in chorus:
From sacrifice and love,
heroes are born,
But the intrepid path
And pain, O, pain! Take
this pain like ne’er before,
The hero will be washed
on Kalymnian shores.
The hero will be washed
on Kalymnian shores.
“That was weird,” Jen said. I agreed, and we went straight to bed.
In the early-morning dawn, cold blue light varnished the northern promontories and white Mediterranean architecture of Kalymnos. We mounted our mopeds and headed out toward Arhi, an overhanging tufa wall with a fine collection of limestone phalluses.
Penelope was excited to climb, but I noticed a subtle expression of alarm on her pretty face as she saddled up on the back of Grubb’s moped and wrapped her arms around the little man’s waist. Grubb turned to us and made a face that suggested he was enjoying himself way too much … as if her embrace was not the cringing death-grip that it so obviously was.
The day was uneventful, filled with the usual 5.13 onsights by Sam, who screamed so loudly atop one route that he scared cheese out of the goats milling beneath. All day Grubb inconspicuously searched for reasons to leave early, really so he could get back on the moped with Penelope. As per usual, we ignored him until 3 p.m., when we were bone-tired and the sun had begun its hot crawl across the wall. We checked our day’s itinerary and realized we had six hours of drinking ouzo and eating delicious seafood to do.
On the ride back, I snickered to myself about Penelope’s suggestion that, from now on, Grubb wear his climbing backpack when they rode together on the moped. This extraordinary literal and figurative barrier between them, however, could do nothing to dampen Positron’s lovesick hopes.
That night at dinner Grubb really turned on his charm. He flashed his pearly whites, and acted massively interested in Penelope’s field of physics—which I am pretty sure he previously thought was a fancy word for gym class.
Our group had returned to our favorite restaurant, which was run by a happy, bald Greek fellow named Sakis. Our zeal had made an impression on Sakis earlier that week when we ordered everything on his menu. From that point on, he loved us and the entire kitchen staff would ring bells and holler whenever they saw us walking by on the street. And when we ate there, which was often, it was nearly impossible to keep a carafe of wine empty for very long.
This hospitality, however, indirectly became the catalyst for one of Jason Grubb’s most trying experiences, a pivotal and transformative life moment that, in its throes, was equally traumatic for those around him. As Grubb tried to get his game on with Penelope, he thoughtlessly adopted a wishful pace of imbibing. He’d muscle a carafe off the table and fill his glass above its brink to a point where only the wine’s surface tension kept it from spilling. But instead of returning the carafe to the table—and this is the truly “unamazing” thing—he’d drink more straight from the pitcher, shaking it like a stubborn ketchup bottle above his gaping thirst-hole until the very last droplet trickled down his gullet.
“Get down off the chair,” Sakis pleaded. “You really don’t understand time travel!”
After roughly nine liters of wine and a couple of hours spent feigning interest in physics, Grubb had lost his mind … and his shirt. Half-naked and standing on a stool, Grubb was mindlessly dissecting Einstein’s theory of relativity, a situation made all the more painful in that his entire understanding of physics came from once watching Back to the Future.
For a while, Sakis had been entertained by Grubb’s outrageously wrong concepts of our four dimensions, and since the restaurant owner was OK with it, we forced ourselves to be OK, too. But the breaking point was Grubb’s claim that Back to the Future was the “greatest movie trilogy of all time”—the single stupidest thing any of us had ever heard.
We paid the bill, left a copious tip and exited onto the street. Grubb charged to the front, repeatedly yelling, “Boooooooooone Speeeeed ahead!”
We shushed him, but he was too wound up and loopy to affect. Sam suggested that we find a beach and chill out there.
Atop an uneven cement staircase leading down to the beach, Grubb wobbled and assumed a crouched pose like a ski racer in preparation for his descent. “Booooooooone Speed ahead!” He tucked and barrel-rolled halfway down, and then lurched upright, launching into a short-lived sprint that landed him right in a bush at the entrance of a peaceful seafood restaurant, which, as a side note, offered a beautiful stuffed calamari on its menu. The diners and staff rushed over to Grubb, but he erected himself and carried on toward the yawning, tenebrous ocean.
Three women who worked at the restaurant hurried over to us and asked, “Is your friend OK?”
I shrugged. They each lifted an arm to shake a single finger in unison, and broke out into chorus:
You must, you must rub onion on his nuts!
It’ll sting, my dear, give him a tear,
A testicular sear, for this hero here,
You must, you must, you must
Rub onion on his nuts!
Greeks are weird, I thought, and booked it down the staircase to the beach. Grubb emerged from the ocean and stood glimmering in soaking-wet ecstasy. A wave crashed at my feet and, miraculously, deposited Grubb’s passport. I had trouble believing what had just happened, and quickly realized that if I didn’t reel this guy in, he might not make it home. Grubb yelled into my face “Boooooooone Speeeeed,” in his spit-soaked, grape-reeking breath.
I said, “Grubb, if you yell Mr. Speed’s name again, I’m going to slap you with your passport.” He yelled. I slapped. It was On.
I’ve dealt with drunken people before (and, it should be said, people have dealt with me), and you never know if they’re going to react to confrontation passively or hyper aggressively. When I realized I was the dominant one, my ire over Grubb’s behavior transformed into a warm inner happiness that only grew with each tender backhand I leveled across his chin.
Sam, however, was pissed. After returning to the apartment, we placed a sandy Grubb on a stool, and Sam shouted at him like a Guantanamo prisoner.
“You’re such a child, Grubb!”
Grubb began to protest this assertion, so I slapped him, this time pretty hard.
“Uhh,” Grubb moaned. “Thank you for your patience, Mr. Bisharat. See, Sam? See how patient Mr. Bisharat is?”
Somehow Sam and I both kept straight faces by furrowing our unibrows. Still, Grubb needed someone to find him funny in this harrowing moment of humiliation and despair. He picked up a gallon jug of water and dumped it all over his face. Only the joke was on him because he instantly choked and violently coughed. He found his way over to a hanging vineyard adjacent to the pool and, in a full and ironic circle, vomited a liter of wine on the nascent grapes.
I found a hose and cleaned up the mess, then turned the hose on Grubb to wash him off, which made him gurgle and writhe on the ground like a fitful infant. Once in his room, he immediately stripped naked, which caused the girls to shriek and flee to a corner, where they hugged and consoled each other. Grubb fell over, with his face landing on his pillow and the rest of his nude body hanging off the side of the bed like some sopping, lifeless figment produced by the mind of Edvard Munch.
Sam and I sighed. We each grabbed a leg and wheel-barrowed Grubb’s reeking carcass onto the cot, our eyes squinting before the ripe full moon.
Of course, the next day Grubb felt totally fine. We all felt that he should be hungover at least, remorseful at best. Positron shrugged off our admonitions, and suggested we’d feel better after some food.
We walked down the street past the restaurant, and when Sakis saw us, he ran out, ringing his bell.
“How are you, my friend?” he said to Grubb, patting him on the shoulder. “You know you are a hero? Jason is the hero of all the Greeks!”
“You hear that?” Grubb said. “I’m a hero!”
“No, you misunderstood him,” I said. “He said you’re a gyro. It’s different.”
“No, no,” Sakis corrected me. “‘Jason’ means hero. You are welcome to come to my restaurant any time. Any one who enjoys life is welcome at Sakis’.”
I had a hard time envisioning Grubb as the leader of the Argonauts. But perhaps I shouldn’t. To travel for climbing is to lead a life fully lived. If you’re lucky, it’s with as much passion as a guy like Grubb. No matter where you go, the rocks remain inanimate, but the climbing partners around you make a trip worth taking, and life worth living.
That was a heroic thing to have shown us.
Mr. Bisharat is very patient, indeed.