I’D BEEN TEACHING ENGLISH abroad in the snowy landlocked Czech Republic, where like my Czech friends, I’d learned to yearn for the ocean. Before returning to the States, I booked a cheap Czech Airlines to Greece, which I’d never seen. After visiting the Acropolis, I caught an overnight ferry to the volcanic island of Santorini.
The word “port” seemed optimistic for the spit of grey sand that clung like a withered bandage to the dark cliffs of Santorini. The air reeked of exhaust fumes while the ground was littered with spools of black wire and mildewed coils of rope. Seagulls flapped their wings over the battered white boats that rocked in the green water.
Exhausted from the long sleepless ferry ride, I shuffled among the herd of tourists onto the fleet of buses waiting to haul us up to various towns on the island cliffs.
I passed up “Paradise Beach,” a drunken party spot that seemed anything but a Paradise, and Thira, Santorini’s largest town, to head for Oia, a quiet village at the tip of the island. I barely remembered stumbling into my hostel room, an airy box with ocean breezes billowing the curtains. A handsome man from Italy lay on one of the other beds. He was reading Oscar Wilde’s Dei Profundis.
That should have been a sign.
I had recently graduated from college and wasn’t sure where I wanted to live or what I wanted to do with my life. It seemed tremendously important at the time to know the answers to those questions, and to fall in love.
Though I loved Prague, I’d decided it would never be home. For one thing, I found it difficult to meet other gay men there. The few gay bars in town catered to older tourists on the prowl for younger Czech men, or were hidden in shadowy alleys or down a set of stairs, with a doorman who looked you over before letting you inside. Each time I visited one of these places, I felt as if I were doing something illegal.
I also felt the weight of the city’s heavy, gray ambiance. Too many Communist-era cement tower blocks surrounding the picturesque city center. Too much smog trapped by the hills above the lovely Vltava River. Too much thick, meaty food.
So it was all the more exciting to wake up in the hot clean sunlight of Oia, where bleached stucco walls were punctuated with blue doors and flaming red flowers. At meals, we ate gleaming oranges bulging with juice, crackling spinach and cheese pies, and thick, creamy tzatziki dip mixed with shredded cucumber and chopped dill.
And then there was my roommate Alberto, whose hair was gelled to look like a head of surf crashing down and then shooting up above his lightly bronzed forehead.
My first day in Oia, Alberto led me to a lonely rocky beach where he bared his chest, a brass plate. We swam in the mornings, napped in our room in the afternoon, and then at night returned to the beach and stared at the stars, bright and numerous in the clear black sky like fireworks. He recited poetry to me. He told me about his life in Italy, working for a famous opera house. He still lived with his mother, though occasionally he visited a special friend of his, who had a Jewish name like mine.
When I asked him flat out if he was gay, he said, “I don’t like to define myself.”
I told myself that I wasn’t really in love, that one of the hazards of being away from home for so long was being prone to these brief but intense bouts of desire that usually cooled off as quickly as they flared up. I had coined a name for this syndrome: “wander-lust.”
Whatever I felt, I went on accompanying him to that beach and that blue-green sea. One morning I cut my foot on a rock I hadn’t seen under the water. He cleaned the wound gently and then stroked my ankle in a way I felt at the pit of my stomach. Then we lay on towels and burned under the sun. Alberto closed his eyes, but I stared at his body as I soaked in salt from the sea spray that blew on the hot clear wind. It hurt to look at him.
One evening, after a delicious meal of grilled lamb, tzatziki, and Greek wine, I touched his hand. For a minute, he squeezed mine back.
“I’m flattered,” he said. “I thought I could, but I cannot.”
I was young, desperately attracted to him, flush with shame and hurt.
So I cut short my vacation on Oia and bought a ticket on a ferry to Mykonos, just to get away. At the last minute, Alberto also bought a ticket on the same boat, which he would ride back to Athens before flying home.
When you’re out in the middle of it, the platinum surface of the Aegean Sea might as well be an ocean, and your boat, a Noah’s ark. All land disappears. By day the sky is stubbornly cloudless. Then the sun douses itself in the steel grey line of water along the horizon and everything turns black. It feels reassuring to belong to someone, even if only for the duration of a boat ride.
“I’m freezing to death,” I told Alberto as I clutched the deck railing.
“You are so straight and you are so gay.” He squeezed my bare arms to warm them. “No one would ever know you are a gay, and then you say, ‘I’m freezing to death!’ with this hand gesture, like a real big queen. It’s very appealing.”
“So why don’t you come with me to Mykonos, if I’m so appealing?”
“Here. Take.” He unwrapped the navy blue cable-knit sweater from around his neck and held it open for me to poke my arms and head through. Inside the sweater it was dark and cramped and I imagined what it would be like to have him in there with me, warm, European, smelling like a roasted chestnut.
Then he asked: “If I went with you, what would it mean?”
I looked out at the terrifying blankness of the Aegean Sea, as if this journey would go on forever like the water. I had no plans beyond the summer. Return home, regroup, and then?
So why return home? Why not stop somewhere for a while, like Italy?
I imagined the two of us arriving triumphantly to Italy, moving him out of his mother’s apartment, me sitting in the wings of his opera house watching him work — what spaghetti we’d share.
“Come to Mykonos,” I said. “And whatever happens happens. I’ll take my chances.”
Alberto sighed. “I’ll make up my mind when we get there,” he said finally. “Either I’ll get off, or I’ll stay on.”
Today I’m happily married and the proud parent of an adorable dog, yet as I type these words, I can still feel the terror of that black sea, and the relief of Alberto’s companionship. I still haven’t found all the answers to life’s big questions, but the difference between my twenties and now is that now I’ve grown accustomed to living in an uncertainty as deep, wide, and dark as the Aegean seemed that evening.
The lights of Mykonos Town blinked orange out of the dark. A black craggy outline of a mountain range emerged against the black velvet sky.
We smiled shyly at each other on the way down to the baggage room, where I found my backpack. “Where’s yours?” I asked.
Alberto patted my cheek. He looked at me sadly. “It’s very tempting, but I cannot.”
I couldn’t speak. Instead, I took off his sweater and handed it over.
“You are okay with my decision?”
I shrugged off his question. “Help me with this, would you?”
He lifted my bag from behind and when I’d adjusted all the straps and buckled myself in, he pulled me close for a few seconds, then set me free to walk down a plank and roam the dark noisy harbor at Mykonos in search of a room to sleep alone. I couldn’t think of anything except must find a room, must get to the next empty room. This was Mykonos Town on a Saturday night, noisy with trumpets and drums and drunken women with thin elbows and slinky dresses laughing like birds.
I knew it was all very beautiful, but at that moment, I couldn’t see it.