Mother as Wingman in Santorini, Greece
“Oh no you don’t,” my mother said. “You’re not going to jump off from there.”
“It’s deep enough,” I said, teetering on the edge of the schooner, the Aegean Sea below. In the distance, the white-washed buildings clinging to the edge of the caldera looked like snow.
“I forbid it!” she said.
“Mom, I’m 35.”
“Then act like it,” my mother called.
I leapt into the sea.
As I climbed the ladder back into the boat, the sandy-haired stranger smiled at me and winked. I had noticed him as soon as we had boarded the sunset cruise. He had smiled at me then, and being my mother’s daughter, I smiled back. He didn’t look like the usual tourist — sunburned, tennis-shoe-clad, a face tinged with an expression of awe and indigestion.
“What do you think you are, a mermaid?” my mother asked.
“Maybe,” I said and smiled over to the sandy-haired stranger.
My mother caught me and said, “What are you looking at?” even though she already knew.
After a hiking trip up Nea Kameni volcano and a swim in the cloudy warm springs, the tourists were settled back in the boat, drinks in hand, and the sandy-haired man played the saxophone, serenading the setting sun. My mother and I sipped Greek wine, listened to the breathy saxophone, a sound both sassy and serious. The music of a clandestine love affair. Or so I imagined.
It was my mother who’d asked him to ride up the rickety cable car back to Fira with us, who’d invited him to dinner. It was as if she wanted to make sure somebody was going to have a Shirley Valentine experience in Greece.
But this proved to be quite an ordeal, considering Benny, the Albanian saxophone player, had a repertoire of about 10 English words. He could speak Greek, Italian, and of course, Albanian. I can speak Spanish, a language closer to Italian than English, so we managed on Benny’s Italian and my broken Spanish, understanding about 7% of what the other said. We made it through dinner this way, eating takeout gyros on a park bench. He invited us to have drinks later at Enigma, the nightclub where he worked.
“That Benny sure is nice, isn’t he?” my mother asked.
“I guess so. It’s hard to talk to him.”
“Did you see he’s missing teeth. In the back?” I asked.
“Don’t be so judgmental,” my mother said.
We wandered the cobbled streets, past the tourist shops and bougainvillea, and then had a drink at an Irish pub called Murphy’s. When we thought it late enough, we headed for Enigma.
The bouncer told us that we were too early. It was 10pm but things wouldn’t get started until midnight. Or later.
“Can we just come in for a drink?” my mother asked. “We know Benny.”
So we entered through the neon-lit cave that looked like the tunnel where you wait in line for Disneyland’s Space Mountain. The curved ceilings hung low, the purple neon glowing on the white cave walls.
We were the only patrons in the club.
We walked up to the bar, and ordered white wine, which tasted like vinegar. I asked the bartender how long the bottle had been open, and he just gave me a blank look. My mother told him, “We’re friends with Benny, you know.”
I knew I couldn’t have been the first woman to come in looking for Benny after the boat ride. But I may have been the first woman who had come to the bar accompanied by her mother as wingman.
At the beginning of our trip, my mother had announced that she was no longer going to be passive aggressive. “I’m giving it up,” she had said. In her very next sentence, she asked if my ex-husband, who I was living with again, had ever bought me an engagement ring.
“You know the answer,” I said.
“Do I?” she asked, all innocence. For my mother, different truths exist in different rooms of the brain. At any given time, she decided which room to live in, whether or not secrets and lies decorated the walls. I’d learned to go along with it, depending on the fixtures that told me everything was okay; all of it, normal.
So it didn’t seem anything but normal when my mother and I danced with Benny on the empty dance floor, the bartender looking on with an amused smile. Or when Benny started calling my mother “Mama,” which she tried, unsuccessfully, to discourage because she thought it made her sound old enough to actually be his mother, which of course she was.
When we went back to the white leather couches, Benny squeezed in next to me. He went in for the kiss, and I gave him my cheek.
“Want to see the rooftop terrace?” Benny asked in Italian. The word terrace is the same in Spanish, so I translated for my mother.
“You two go ahead,” my mother said, waving toward the door. “I’ll stay here.” She took a sip of her vinegar wine.
“Thanks, Mama,” Benny said.
I followed Benny up to the rooftop terrace. The lights of Santorini glimmered on the purple Aegean Sea. I breathed in the sea air, and Benny tried to kiss me again. I squirmed away, not because of modesty or because of my live-in ex-husband. In truth, I liked Benny more from afar; the saxophone’s allure was not in the fulfillment of an affair but in its promise.
“I want to kiss you,” he said. These were among his ten English words, and he didn’t really need them because the way he tried to press his mouth to mine made his intent obvious enough.
“We haven’t even had a date,” I tried, as if that had ever stopped me from making out with a stranger.
“But I love you,” he said, trying to kiss me.
“You don’t love me. You want to fuck me.”
“Yes. I want to make fuck but also I love you.”
“You are beautiful, and I want to make fuck.”
“I’m sure you do.” For every backward step I took, Benny took one forward. Our bodies cast dark shadows in the yellow spray of a nearby streetlamp; we stood at the edge of the terrace against a stone wall, the sea shimmering far below.
He nodded and twisted his face into what could pass for sincere.
“That’s fine,” I said, “but I don’t want to leave my mom for too long. We should go back.”
When he looked at me, confused, I said, “Mama,” and pointed down to the club.
He nodded and said in Italian, “We will have a date tomorrow. I will pick you up on my moto. We will go to the beach.”
“Where?” I asked, catching all of it but the last part because the Spanish and Italian words for beach are nothing alike.
“To the sea,” he said in English.
“What time?” I asked in Spanish.
“Dieci,” he said.
“Diez?” I held up all of my fingers, and Benny nodded. I told Benny the name of the hotel where we were staying. It was one of those third-drink decisions. And I reasoned that most of us just want to make fuck; at least Benny had been up-front about it. Sometimes the fewer words we are able to exchange with each other, the more honest we become.
Benny smiled and said, “Back to work now.”
When I got back down to the club, my mother had just ordered another glass of wine.
“Let’s go,” I said.
“But I just ordered another drink.”
“It’s like vinegar.”
“It cost me good money.”
“Bring it with you.”
“How can I?”
I took the glass and put it inside my jean jacket. “This is how. Let’s go.”
“This way it won’t be wasted. We can give the glass to Benny tomorrow.”
“I sort of made a date with him.”
My mother and I ended up getting lost on the way back to the hotel, and my mother said, “Why are you leading me through the back alleys of Greece?”
“I’m not trying to.”
“You’re not lost, are you?”
“No,” I lied. We walked past a group of stray cats, eating what looked like noodles off of sheets of newspaper. Ahead of us, an old woman distributed the food, and the cats competed for it, snarling and hissing at one another.
“It smells like urine,” my mother whispered. “Why did you bring me in the back alleys?”
“Mom, this is Santorini. There are no back alleys. Have some wine,” I handed her the glass. My mother nodded and drank. A man walked toward us on the path, and my mother spun around and ran the other way, up the cobbled stairs, spilling wine as she went. I followed her, shouting, “Mom! Mom!”
But as luck would have it, we were now headed in the direction of our hotel.
The next morning, my mother asked if I was really going to have a date with Benny. I told her I wasn’t.
“That’s good,” she said. “But give him back the wine glass.”
“Last night you were trying to set me up with him.”
“I was not. I wouldn’t do that. Don’t be daft.”
“Well, you got us lost in the back alleys with the stray cats and the hobos,” she said.
“Hobos? What hobos?”
My mother always told me she came to America to be a nanny. Later, after our trip to Greece, I would hear this story: My mother’s own mother had brought her to the pub when she was 15 and set her up with my grandmother’s boss, a married man of 30.
I lived inside a story I hadn’t yet heard but had somehow always known.
In the morning, I waited in front of the hotel, heard the motor of his moped straining up the hill before I saw him. He wore cutoffs, a t-shirt, and sandals. He motioned for me to get on the back of the bike. I tried to explain first in English and then in Spanish that I wasn’t coming, but Benny just half-smiled, patting on the seat behind him.
“I changed my mind,” I said.
And when Benny still didn’t seem to understand, I said in Spanish “I change my mind,” mixing up verb tenses, so it came out in the present tense, making it seem more right than before.
“You don’t like the beach? We’ll have coffee instead,” Benny said, patting the vinyl seat again.
“No, it’s not that. It’s just that I don’t want to leave my mother. She’s sick,” I lied. “Mama sick. Mama enferma,” I said, hoping the Italian word for sick was similar to the Spanish. It isn’t, so Benny just stared at me, pressing his lips together over the emptiness of his mouth. Then he exhaled and asked, “So we are finished?”
Because I didn’t have the words to explain, I just said, “Yes.”
Benny shook his head, not trying to conceal his disappointment.
“But I like you too much,” he said. He crossed his arms over his chest.
I just nodded.
He got on his moped and sped back down the hill. I stood there holding the empty wine glass. I couldn’t figure out how to explain it to him to give it back. I put it on the sidewalk near the entrance of our hotel so my mother would think I gave it to him.
I thought about how it would have made a better story if I had gone.
Sometimes my students wonder what a character might have done in another circumstance. Or what might have happened if a character had acted differently, chosen another path? What if Edna Pontellier could have divorced her husband? Would she still have walked into the sea? The point, I tell them, is not what didn’t happen but what did, that anything else is off the page.
That evening, my mother and I went for drinks at a restaurant under the windmill in Oia. The sun dropped like a pink stone into the water, the sunset cruise sailed by below the white-washed buildings, the blue-domed roofs, and the rocky caldera. The sounds of a saxophone rode the wind. “Do you hear that?” my mother asked. “I wonder if that’s Benny?”
“How many saxophone players are in Santorini?” I said, and we both laughed.
My body felt full of what-ifs and why-nots. I’d liked Benny from afar — the smile, the wink, the boundary of desire. I wondered what would have happened if I had gone with him on the back of his bike, winding paths to the sea.
But that’s off the page.
The ending of my story was right there in the wonder, sitting in the salty, pink sunlight with my mother, listening to the far-off notes of a saxophone travel a current of wind.