The crowd dissipated out into the square where the reception was being held. There were festive decorations everywhere as the bride and groom received everyone one by one before reaching us at the very end.
“Oh, you look so beautiful,” Katie said as Giovanna pulled her into a hug. “You too, Uncle Oscar. Come here.” She pulled him into a tight hug before looking toward the groomsmen. “If you’ll excuse me. I think they need hugs too.” She motioned to them with her head before walking over and introducing herself.
“You look stunning,” I said as Giovanna reached for Uncle Oscar’s hand.
“We’re so glad you could make it. Truly, it was a comfort knowing you were here,” Uncle Oscar said before pulling me into a close hug. “I love you, kiddo.”
“Love you too, Uncle Oscar,” I said, trying not to cry. “You know, I always thought you’d marry my mom someday, but seeing you both together.” I paused, trying to pull myself together. “Giovanna, you’re perfect for him. Absolutely perfect. I love you both and wish you every happiness.”
“You know you’ll always be family to me, kiddo,” he said as he gestured toward his new wife. “That will never change.”
“Thank goodness because I need you in my life,” I said as I wiped away the stray tears. “You know, I realized that while I was in Italy. You don’t have to be blood to be family. You’ve always been my family.”
“About time, kiddo,” he said. “Now go and enjoy yourself.”
I smiled and excused myself to the reception, feeling light as a feather. Everyone was gathering toward the center of the square, but I made my way to the ledge of by the side of the cliff that overlooked the Aegean. I sat down, fanning my skirts around me as I looked off toward the two cruise ships docked in the bay and the other chunk of the island that seemed to have broken off a long time ago.
“Beautiful wedding, wasn’t it?” someone asked as I appreciated the spectacular view of the cliffs.
“Unbelievably,” I said as I looked over at the speaker. “Ari?” I blinked a few times, trying to figure out how it was possible he was here.
“I thought I heard you and Katie arrive,” he said with a laugh as he sat next to me, two glasses of white wine in hand. He offered one to me, and I gladly accepted because my hands were starting to shake, and I was thankful for something to hold.
He was dressed in a simple white dress shirt and navy dress pants. He looked both formal and at ease. The picture of cool, calm, and collected where I was perpetually a mess. As much as I thought I considered every possibility of seeing him, it had never occurred to me that he’d be here. And now that he was, it made perfect sense. Of course he’d be at his uncle’s wedding because he was actually his blood relative, whereas I was...well I was whatever I was. I wanted to tell him everything, but the words were different now. Knowing he would always go back to Naomi made me want to guard my heart, even though I wanted to admit that I missed him.
“We had a little timing issue with our bus ride here, but we made it.” I winced a little from the phantom pain in my hip before turning back to him, his green eyes making me sigh. He was unbearably handsome. “It’s been amazing, you know? Just going wherever my heart takes me. I feel like that’s cheesy and something Pocahontas probably said, but it’s true. Traveling is amazing. More amazing than I remembered. ”
“So you’re happy?”
“You know, I think I am. I finally found what I was...”
“You,” a harsh female voice said, cutting me off. “Seriously, Ari? Seriously?” Again, I found myself blinking, trying to reason with reality because Naomi was here. Why was she here?
“Babe, don’t take this as anything more than it is. We’re just catching up,” Ari said, looking at her with a warning glance. The darkness of his Italian heritage seemed to radiate off him as he sat before me, his dress shirt rolled up to his forearms. His posture relaxed but confident.
“Don’t tell me what to do. You said you were done with her,” Naomi said, making a little hole in my happy bubble.
It was one thing to hear it but to see them in front of me. It was a whole new feeling. I really did lose him.
“If you’ll excuse me, I need to find my friend,” I said as I set down the glass of wine and walked away. If he was done with me, then I would need to be done with him. I made the right choice coming here. Ari made what he thought was his. That was life.
“Oh there you are,” Katie said pulling me to her side. She had that dangerous look in her eye that told me she’d managed to get up to something the second I’d turned my back. She nodded toward Luke as if she’d made some big revelation.
“Did Luke say something?”
“Oh, did he.” She fanned herself. “That would be Antonio aka Luciano’s twin aka aka his very straight, very int0-Katie twin who just asked me to go for a romantic stroll.”
She nodded. “Seriously. He says there’s this amazing lookout just down the street. A fort. Kinda into it. Do you mind if I...holy Jesus is that Ari and Naomi?” She squinted over at the bickering couple.
“Yeah, I was just coming to let you know that they’re here. Together. Which is fine. We’re both adults. We both made choices.” I sighed, and I swore my soul sighed too. Being around Ari had thrown my new Italian zen right out the window.
“It’s ok to have those feelings. If you’re mad, be mad.”
“I’m not mad!” I rolled my eyes. “Fine. A little. Maybe it had been wishful thinking not expecting to seen them together...ever. I know I left him, but it still hurts.”
“Katie, are you ready?” Antonio smiled over at us as he offered his hand. There was no denying he looked like Luciano. Both were tall and lean. Both looked distinctly like they should be in Haute Italia. But where Luciano was was shy and reserved, Antonio was giving some serious life-of-the-party vibes that made it easier to notice subtle differences in their demeanors. Enough to tell them apart anyway.
By the time they’d rounded the corner, Luciano had stepped in to take their place, his eyes lingering over their last seen location. The white walls of the city made it look like they had disappeared into another world entirely and that familiar sense of longing pulled me right back into my pity party for one.
“You know, he seems to like her,” Luciano said, following my line of sight.
“I’m glad.” I took the glass of wine he held out for me, thankful for something to do with my hands. “You know as well as I do that she deserves a fun distraction. Especially today.”
He nodded. “Does she still talk about him?”
“Sometimes. But not much.”
“And what about you? You never mentioned a boyfriend of your own. Don’t you deserve a distraction well?”
“If you knew what I did, you wouldn’t say that,” I took a long sip of wine and then another, trying to make the self-loathing stop but the wine was only making me chattier. I could tell by the look on Luciano’s face that he wasn’t going to let that last one go.
“We could talk about it.”
“We could...” I laughed. “Or we could do anything else.”
“Then I’ll tell you mine. My partner Damian and I did not fall into love easily. We fought a lot.”
“I can’t imagine you even raising your voice,” I said, a little surprised that this was the beginning of his happily ever after anecdote.
“I can be when I’m passionate about something. My family argues about everything, and when we fight, we fight. Same with Damian. We fought over everything and said things neither of us meant.”
“Well sometimes words that hurt can’t unhurt.” I frowned. “Sometimes words last longer than you ever intended.”
“I told Damian I didn’t want to come out to my family. That they’d never love me if they knew what I was,” Luciano’s eyes were molten as they watched me.
I reached out for his arm on instinct. I wanted him to know I was listening.
“And as you can see, the words I said hold no meaning now. I did come out. My family loves me as I am and for who I am.” He smiled. “So you may have said something you didn’t mean or perhaps at the time you did. For me, it wasn’t easy.”
“What did you do?”
“I took some time to find myself, much like you. It wasn’t easy, but I grew up. I worked on my art. I apologized. I did everything I could to make things right in the way that I could. I showed him that I was strong enough to be his boyfriend.”
“You came out for him?”
“I told him I wanted to come out when I was ready. I knew that if he said he didn’t want to wait, then he wasn’t the right man for me.” He paused and turned to me before shifting his attention to the corner where Ari and Naomi were occupying. The one I’d been very pointedly ignoring. “I know it may mean very little to you coming from someone who isn’t exactly batting for the team. Is that the phrase?”
“Close,” I said with a laugh.
“You will find someone who understands you far better than a man like Ares. He may be handsome but he is mortal. He makes mistakes.”
“Hold up. How did you...Katie?” I said, narrowing my eyes. “That girl has no ability to keep a secret.”
I groaned. “How much did she say?”
He winked. “Enough. She let slip she thought he might be going and...” He waved on as if that should be enough to explain Katie in word-vomit mode.
“Well, I guess I’ll have to forgive her because if you think you fight hard, wait ’till you see Katie and I go at it. Greece isn’t ready.”
“Was it ever?”
It felt good to laugh. It felt good to just be here and to be around family, even if I wasn’t going to have that fairy-tale moment with Ari tonight.
“Why does it feel like I’ve known you my whole life,” I said as I leaned on his shoulder. “I’m so overwhelmed. I’m happy for Uncle Oscar. I’m happy for Katie. I’m in freaking Greece.”
“But you’re sad.”
“But I’m sad.” I blew out a frustrated breath. “I just feel like if I cry and show the world that I’m not my best self after all of this, then somehow I’ll look like I regret my choice.” I moved away, finally looking over at Ari. He was deep in conversation with some of Giovanna’s relatives. This would be the moment in the movie where he’d catch me staring, but he didn’t. “But you’re right. I don’t regret anything. How much did he actually like me if he didn’t even try and wait? How long did Damian wait?”
“Three months,” he said with a shrug.
“You know what? I’m not going to be sad. Everything happens for a reason. I know this. If I didn’t go to Italy, I never would have spent time baking with Nonna or meet family I didn’t even know I had. I mean, I learned how to make olive oil and ate spaghetti and meatballs for breakfast every day.” I laughed. “Did you know I went grape squishing? Because I did. You don’t actually turn purple.”
“Was that a...”
“Seriously, bitch, you need to get a life and stop stealing people’s boyfriends?” Naomi’s voice pulled me out of my moment right as a glass of red wine was thrown on my face and all over my dress.
It took me a moment to register that that had actually just happened as I blinked past the red droplets clinging to my mascara.
The wine was sticky on my skin as I wiped at my eyes with Luciano’s pocket square, probably ruining it but he was too busy shouting something in Italian to his mother.
“Look, Naomi, whatever is going on, your problem is not with me.”
With the makeup out of my eyes, I could finally see her pouting in front of me. Only, she didn’t remind me of an angel anymore. She looked like a child. A small, pouty child with extensions.
“Bitch, you better get out of here before I break the money maker,” Katie said, gesturing to her face to be sure Naomi put two and two together. “Babe, are you ok? Oh wow. She really got you good didn’t she.”
“That’s not helping,” I said between gritted teeth as she took the cloth from my hand and started wiping at my cheek. She frowned, licked it, and went back for another go. “Ew, Mom. No.”
“Stop fidgeting. It’s not that bad.”
“You just said...”
“What’s going on here?” Uncle Oscar’s voice caused everyone to step back, including Katie. He looked at me and down at the wine dripping off my face and dress before turning away. “Ares, may I speak with you? Now.” His tone suggested that there was to be no argument.
“Shouldn’t he be talking to Naomi?” I whispered, trying to read their lips but it was too difficult from this distance. They both looked out way and I pretended to be deeply fascinated by the freckles on Katie’s neck as she pulled wiped at the last of the makeup dripping from my face.
“She is his guest.”
“I guess you’re right,” I shrugged watching Ari walk away and whispering something to Naomi. “Do you think they’re leaving or...oh my god. He’s coming over. Shit. Katie.”
“So then I was like, of course you can show me the gorgeous amazing overlook by the fort,” Katie said just in time for Ari to hear. “But of course I got hungry so we had to come back for some apps, but girl...”
“Could I speak with you for a moment, Sophia?” he asked as he raked his hand through his hair. “I won’t take too much of your time, but I owe you an apology.”
“It’s ok. We’re good,” I said, not trusting myself to make extended eye contact. Instead, my eyes locked with Luciano. He smiled before gesturing toward his date, a tall blonde model type with gorgeous blue eyes and a soft smile. That must be Damian.
“No, really, I’d like to apologize.”
I couldn’t help but look at him. He seemed sincere, but then again, he’d seemed like a lot of things I no longer believed.
“I just need one moment of your time, and then I won’t bother you anymore.”
“Don’t forget, I’m a trained ninja who knows how to make a man sterile.” Katie gave the I’m-watching-you hand from her eyes to his a few more times than necessary. “Sterile,” she whispered again before stepping away and toward Antonio, who waited for her by the overlook.
“Come with me,” he said, nodding for me to follow.
“This can be said here.” I stood my ground.
“I made a mistake, and I know that’s no excuse for what Naomi did, but then again so did you. I should never have let Naomi back into my life, and you shouldn’t have run away. I know you wanted to travel, but we should have done it together. We would have gone everywhere and done anything you wanted without worry about expense. If you had only waited until the merger was settled, none of this would have happened, but we made these mistakes equally and without regard for what we could have been. I don’t want them to ruin our future, so I’m stepping up and apologizing before it’s too late.”
There they were. He’d said the words I’d thought I wanted to hear. And yet, they sounded almost ridiculous now. Like he was living in some kismet fantasy land.
“Here’s the thing, Ari. What you would be great if it were true but it’s not. This trip was never about leaving you. Maybe our fight was a catalyst but I wasn’t running away from you. I was running toward something. Something I knew was always here.”
“Look at it from my perspective and tell me you weren’t running away.” He crossed his arms over his chest, his body language radiating this inexplicable tension that was winding tighter by the second.
“I was doing what was best for me. Not for you, or for us, but for me. You ran right back to Naomi instead of trying to understand that I wasn’t ready to date you. So if all of this is your version of an apology, consider it unaccepted and any others, unnecessary.” I took a much needed deep breath, watching as the party started to head toward the reception. “I have no regrets about leaving the way I did and when I did, and maybe one day you’ll understand why I chose to finally be spontaneous and find what I needed in myself, but until you do, don’t worry about me or think of me, because I won’t be thinking of you. I’ll be living. Enjoy your evening,” I said as I shook my head and walked away. I was quickly realizing that he wasn’t who I thought he was.
“Ninja time?” Katie asked before motioning for us all to walk and talk.
“No, but I think I’m going to go back to the ship. The last tender boat leaves at seven, and I just want to end my trip without drama. Uncle Oscar and Giovanna leave tomorrow anyway. I think it might be easier on me if I go now. Seeing Ari hurts. He never respected me, and I almost fell for him. I feel like such an idiot.”
“No, no, and no. No more running.”
“I’m not running.”
“Yes, you are or would be, but not tonight! Tonight, we’re going to have an amazing night drinking Greek and Italian wine and enjoying this family you’ve found. If you leave now, you’ll regret it and I’m not letting you do it. No way,” she said as she walked me toward a table covered in snacks and drinks. “Now try one of everything, and get ready for the night of your life.”
“You know it’s only three right?” I said with a laugh.
“Yeah, yeah, but think about how amazing this place will be at night with all the music and partying.”
“Fine, you’ve convinced me,” I said, pulling her in for a hug.
“Oh no no. Only side hugs while you’re sticky. This is still couture.”
Santorini at night was whimsical and breathtaking. After the wedding gradually made it’s way to the reception, everyone found their place cards and settled in for a traditional Greek dinner of roasted lamb, some sort of spinach and feta pie, and a bunch of other food that made me want to curl up in a corner and sleep for the next week.
When we first arrived, the restaurant looked like it could barely hold all forty of us, but there were different levels, one above for eating and a lower level with a dance floor built right onto the edge of the cliff, the sides jutting off like the end of an infinity pool. Thankfully, there was a sturdy layer of glass between us and the cliffs, but I was keeping a healthy distance from the edge just to be safe.
“Please make me stop eating,” Katie said as she leaned her head against my shoulder. “I’m dying a slow, wonderful death at the hands of souvlaki.”
“We’ve had souvlaki before,” I said, watching as she set the pita down before looking at it and going in for another bite.
“Not like this,” she said as she looked over at the people crowding the dance floor. Music was billowing around us from hidden speakers, playing slow songs for the swaying couples.
“So where’s Antonio?” I asked, looking around for her semi-crush.
“I told him I was your date tonight,” she said with a shrug. “He said he’d still look for me for the last dance.”
“Oh, don’t do that,” I said, nudging her. “I’m just fine here, eating my troubles away as the dress ruiner dances with...never mind. It doesn’t matter. She doesn’t matter. I guess I’m just not ready to admit that I’m 100% single again.”
“Whereas you were previously...”
“95% single,” I said with a laugh. “Please go dance with Antonio. You deserve to have your moment.”
“Girl, I’m already having it.” She leaned her head back on my shoulder as if to say there was no place she’d rather be.
“Ladies,” Luciano and Antonio said in unison, walking over in their matching suits. For a moment, I had to remind myself who was whom, but the way Luciano smiled was all the reminder I needed.
“It’s almost time for the sirtaki, and you do not want to miss this,” Luciano said, all but lifting me from my chair.
Katie stood immediately, pretending to get lightheaded so she could grab onto the breadth of Antonio's arm.
“So what is this sirtaki?” I asked, looking down at our nearly empty plates. “Please say it’s not more food because I might die.”
“Well first, we take shots of ouzo and then we dance around the restaurant,” Antonio said, leading the way to the bar. The music stilled as the shots were laid out all in a row, looking intimidating as I thought of how terrible it would feel to drink and dance on a full stomach, but this was all part of the fun apparently.
“To adventures in Italy and drinks in Greece,” Katie shouted before clinking her glass against mine. We downed the liquid quickly, the black-licorice flavor burning down my throat and straight into my bloodstream.
"Oh god, that was..."
"Amazing! Another." Katie handed me a second shot. I shrugged, knowing I'd need it if we were dancing.
“It’s starting.” Luciano grabbed our hands, Damian walking over to join us in the growing crowd.
“First it’s slow,” Antonio said as he reached his left hand toward Katie’s. “Then it picks up. Just try and follow along and have fun.”
“Right,” I said, looking down at my heels. The crowd started linking hands as the beginning chords began, the plucking of the mandolin gradually picking up the pace as people began moving in a circle, hands clasped as they did what I could best associate as a grapevine on steroids. We’d cross one foot over the other, moving through the steps we could pick up on fast enough as the room kept spinning faster and faster while the ouzo kicked in. It didn't take long for me to realize that Katie and I were not in fact picking up on the dance like I'd imagined and we're just doing a very bad mashup of the can-can and cupid shuffle.
We bowed out and let the professionals finish up as we caught our breath. We definitely had not been ready for the sirtaki.
“Never...again,” Katie said, wheezing against the white stucco wall. “I think I scuffed my babies.”
“There you are,” Antonio said, smiling and without Luciano by his side. Before Katie could stop me, I excused myself from the conversation, leaving them together.
It was nearly seven now, and the sun was lost behind the cliff, meaning that my getaway ship was long gone.
“Why do I get the feeling you’re not having fun, kiddo?” Uncle Oscar asked as he joined me by the balcony, the summer breeze fluttering the outer skirts of my dress.
“I am,” I said, smiling over at him. “I’m just thinking."
"Timing." I looked over at him in his white-linen jacket, the moonlight catching the silver in his hair. "Kismet."
"Kismet?" He laughed. "Is this about Ari?"
"Don't you mean Ares?" I joked. "You really laid it on this this afternoon."
"You are my priority, kiddo. Ari and Naomi are not."
"Do you think I made a mistake leaving L.A. when I did?"
I shook my head, watching the dark waters shift below. "No. But I wondered what you thought. If you thought I should have done things differently."
"Sometimes you have to leap and then figure out how to land. It seems to me that you're still falling."
I sucked in a breath. Maybe he was right.
“As you may have guessed, Ari and I didn’t leave on the best terms and now that he's back together with Naomi, I feel like I took a few steps back."
“But you like him?”
I paused, trying to see if my heart would let me tell the truth.
“I don’t know,” I said, closing my eyes. “I don't really know him, but if I had to imagine the guy I've been waiting for, he's it. In a way, he’s everything I once wanted, but that isn’t good enough now. He didn’t wait for me, and that’s fine. It’s his life too, but I needed this trip to see the world from outside a cubicle. I met my family and made friends. Katie and I traveled together and realized that work isn’t everything. How could I ever regret something like that?”
“But some part of you does,” Uncle Oscar said as if reading my mind.
“Does that make me crazy?” I asked, opening my eyes. The sky seemed darker now, but that meant soon, the real stars would shine through, brighter. Clearer.
“It makes you human.” He pulled me into a tight side hug. He must have gotten Katie's no-sticky-hugs memo.“Logic doesn’t reason with the heart. It’s our fatal flaw.”
“What would you have done?” I paused, forming the rest of my question. “If you had been in my shoes, would you have done what I did?”
“I can’t say, kiddo,” he said, surprising me.
For some reason, I expected him to agree. “I think I made the right decision,” I said, affirming my actions. "More now than ever."
“I think so too, kiddo. I think so too.”